Political cash floods California races

More than half a billion dollars in political cash is likely to be spent in California by Tuesday, a staggering amount in a year when the presidential candidates are barely present and voters appear tepid about much of the state ballot.

This election will rank among the top in California history for campaign spending -- without the governor’s office or most other top posts in play.

The money infused into ballot-measure campaigns, congressional races and bids for state legislative seats is a reminder that California is an election powerhouse in its own right. Cash is pouring in throughout the state and from across the nation.

The California ballot is packed with initiatives that could reverberate nationwide, potentially affecting how entire industries operate. The balance of power in Congress may depend heavily on voters here. Even contests between relative unknowns for a spot in the much-maligned Legislature are multimillion-dollar affairs, attracting interests made anxious by the far-reaching policies churned out of that institution.


“There are individuals spending the gross domestic product of small countries to advance a single issue one way or the other” in California, said Larry Gerston, a professor of political science at San Jose State.

Out-of-state advocacy groups are among those fueling the frenzy. They have seized mostly on congressional races that are now competitive in California’s newly drawn voting districts.

At least 10 seats are up for grabs, and they are the targets of nonprofits affiliated with unions, trade associations and nationally known activists such as Karl Rove and Grover Norquist. Such groups have spent $52 million boosting or battling candidates -- more than a quarter of all spending on the state’s congressional contests, according to campaign filings with the federal government.

The new voting maps also apply to state legislative races, most of which were yawners in years past. Now, candidates such as Democrat Ken Cooley, city council member in the uneventful Sacramento suburb of Rancho Cordova, fill CNN’s airwaves during commercial breaks with the help of $3 million in political cash from insurance companies, public-employee unions and others.

The highest spending is in initiative fights.

Voters considering tax hikes and an end to the death penalty may not be focused on proposals involving how unions use their members’ dues, whether car insurance rates should be restructured or whether the corporate income-tax code should be tweaked. But donors are.

“The state’s economy is so large that the benefits and drawbacks of some of these measures are enormous for those who are giving,” said Daniel G. Newman, president of MapLight, a nonprofit group that tracks campaign spending. “California is watched nationally. Initiatives passed here get copied elsewhere.”

That thought has clearly stirred anxiety in the coalition of multinational corporations trying to stop Proposition 37, which would require companies to label genetically modified food. The biggest donors to the $44-million campaign against the measure are biotechnology companies Monsanto and DuPont, which have spent $13.5 million combined.

“Almost none of the biggest contributors against this are even based in California,” said Gary Ruskin, campaign manager for the other side, Yes on 37.

The opponents say the measure would raise food prices, spark endless litigation and is based on junk science. They worry that companies could be forced to label genetically modified products nationwide if it passes, as segregating food sold in California may be untenable.

Perhaps the most controversial money from outside the state has come anonymously. An Arizona nonprofit is refusing to reveal the identities of those behind an $11-million donation to a California campaign fund. State officials have gone to court to force the donors to reveal themselves.

Some of the secret money is being spent against Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s push for $6 billion in temporary tax increases. The governor has lashed out on the stump at what he calls the “shadowy” Arizona donors.

For those watching California from afar, Brown’s measure is a sideshow to another campaign benefiting from the Arizona cash: a push for Proposition 32. That measure would ban unions from using member dues -- their main fundraising mechanism -- for political giving, an effort to neutralize labor as the most influential force in California government.

The Arizona donors have joined the American Future Fund in supporting the measure. The fund is a conservative Iowa nonprofit connected to billionaire brothers and energy executives Charles and David Koch. The bulk of the money supporting Proposition 32, however, comes from wealthy Californian Charles Munger Jr.

He is among half a dozen rich individuals who stocked this year’s ballot with their own interests by bankrolling the costly signature-gathering efforts for initiatives. Their causes account for six of the 11 measures before voters.

Munger’s sister, Molly, has spent $47 million on one of her own, Proposition 38, which would hike income taxes to raise money primarily for education.

The fight over Charles Munger’s project, Proposition 32, is expected to be the costliest initiative war in the country this year, with total spending exceeding $100 million. Unions are fighting the measure in an effort to remain a national bulwark for organized labor. They have spent even more, $64 million, fighting Proposition 32 than Munger’s nearly $36 million to support the proposition and fight the governor’s tax initiative.

The flood of cash in proposition battles has sparked the usual conversation about whether California’s famous initiative system, born of the populist politics of Gov. Hiram Johnson 101 years ago, has been hijacked by special interests. Successful grass-roots measures tend to be the exception now.

But there is no agreement that politics was pure a century ago.

“There is this impression that back in the old days, people would write their own petitions and weave campaign signs,” said Shaun Bowler, who teaches initiative politics at UC Riverside. “It is silly. There has always been a level of professionalization in politics. If there is money to be spent, it has always been spent in politics.”