Supreme Court’s ruling on corporate campaign spending could affect state races

The U.S. Supreme Court’s sweeping ruling Thursday to allow corporate spending in federal political campaigns could shift the playing field in Sen. Barbara Boxer’s reelection effort, congressional races across California and some municipal elections, notably in Los Angeles and San Diego.

The decision removes prohibitions on corporations and unions from spending their money to influence federal elections.

California already allows union and corporate spending in races for statewide offices such as governor. In fact, the new federal rules will look very similar to the system used for state-level elections in California, where independent campaigns by wealthy interests such as unions and corporations are commonplace.

Still, the infusion of such funding into federal races could be a game-changer. How much the state’s political landscape will change was the subject of much debate Thursday.

“It’s taken what might have been a two-dimensional chess game and made it a three-dimensional game,” said Kevin Eckery, a GOP strategist.

Boxer’s reelection campaign will largely be the testing ground for the new rules in California. Though several California congressional seats could be competitive this fall, none is expected to lure the national attention -- and money -- of Democrat Boxer’s bid for a fourth term.

Generally, Republicans cheered the court’s ruling. Chuck Bell, general counsel for the California Republican Party, said the 5-4 decision -- with the court’s four conservative justices joined by frequent swing vote Anthony Kennedy -- brought him “from down in the dumps to elated. I’m a believer in free speech.”

Marty Wilson, campaign manager for Republican Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive seeking to unseat Boxer, said the ruling was a “net plus for Republicans.”

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who is also seeking the GOP nomination to challenge Boxer, praised the ruling as “a victory for free speech.” But the Irvine Republican tamped down expectations for the GOP, saying the decision “would in all likelihood help Barbara Boxer as an incumbent because American big business tends to contribute to the party in power.”

Democrats were mostly disappointed.

“I think it benefits special interests, who and whatever they are. And I don’t think it’s good for democracy,” said John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party. “The big corporations will be spending a lot of money trying to defeat Barbara.”

Unlike the state, some local governments, including the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego, have imposed limits similar to the federal restrictions the court rejected. The justices’ decision appears to have overturned the local laws as well, to the dismay of some officials.

“The fear is that this decision will open a floodgate to corporate spending . . . in a way that undermines the role of individuals in our city’s campaigns,” said LeeAnn Pelham, executive director of the L.A. City Ethics Commission.

“No question it’s an advantage for big business and Republicans,” said Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.

San Diego County GOP Chairman Tony Krvaric disagreed, saying the change would simply create “a level playing field.”

Nearly everyone agreed on one thing: There will be more money flooding the political marketplace.

Ross Johnson, chairman of the Fair Political Practices Commission, California’s campaign watchdog agency, said more campaign spending means greater influence. To believe otherwise, he said, is “to presume that candidates for public office live in a cave. . . . To think it’s never going to come to their attention that someone spent a million dollars to support or oppose them, that’s crazy.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.