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Once seen as a major race, campaign for controller is now a snoozer

Once seen as a major race, campaign for controller is now a snoozer
California controller candidates Betty Yee, left, and Ashley Swearengin. (Associated Press)

The campaign for state controller, the job responsible for paying the state's bills, was expected to be one of the year's most hotly contested, the showcase for a rising Republican star from the Central Valley.

But it hasn't worked out that way. Television advertising has been scarce, and fundraising light, by California standards. The candidates did not debate. They're grinding it out by flooding mailboxes with fliers, working the phones and criss-crossing the state to speak with voters.

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"It's been a snoozer," said Republican consultant Reed Galen.

One reason is that the Republican candidate, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, has struggled to pool the money and support necessary for a successful statewide bid in heavily Democratic California.

Rather than serve as a launch pad for Swearengin, the contest could end as a reminder of the hurdles faced by the state's diminished Republican Party.

Although state GOP chairman Jim Brulte urged Swearengin to run, the party has put almost no cash into her candidacy, spending instead on legislative races in hopes of denying Democrats a supermajority in the Capitol.

As of Oct. 18, the most recent information available, Swearengin had spent $1.1 million this year and had less than $90,000 in her campaign account, according to her reports on file with the state. Her Democratic opponent, Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, had spent $1.8 million, with $225,670 left.

Yee, a longtime fiscal wonk who worked in the Capitol before joining the state tax board, was eight points ahead in the Field Poll released Thursday.

"The Republicans initially had some interest in the race. But I don't see the party doing much for my opponent," Yee said. "I'm not sure what they could do to change the momentum that we've had."

Unions are lining up behind Yee to ensure that the controller's office stays in Democratic hands, as it has since 1975. Labor groups have spent more than $474,000 for mailers to attack Swearengin, and an additional $335,000 to support Yee with radio advertising, polling and more mailers, campaign filings show.

"You want to make sure you can do everything possible to shore up candidates who will help workers," said Steve Smith, a spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

He said that the current controller, Democrat John Chiang, has used the office to target wage theft. "For us, it's a very important position," Smith said.

Swearengin, who finished first in the June "top two" primary and pledges to provide an independent voice in Democrat-dominated Sacramento, said she views union spending as a sign the race is close.

"We are very encouraged by our position at this stage of the campaign," she said. "We're in this race."

But unlike Yee, Swearengin hasn't had enough cash for a single television advertisement. And the spending by unions represents the kind of independent campaign that Swearengin hasn't seen on her side.

California's deepest political pockets are in the Bay Area, Southern California and Sacramento, but the biggest chunk of Swearengin's donations have come from Fresno and other areas of the San Joaquin Valley.

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Charles Munger Jr., a wealthy Republican who has dumped millions into campaigns in the past, has donated $13,600 to Swearengin's effort, the maximum allowed. But he hasn't launched any separate expenditures to support her.

"She needs a sugar daddy to keep things interesting," said Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio. "The Republican brand in California is so damaging that if you don't have a way to communicate that you're different, it's difficult to win."

Swearengin has tried to distance herself from her party, declining to endorse Neel Kashkari, the Republican candidate for governor. The strategy could backfire, consultants said, by offending GOP loyalists while failing to win over Democrats.

"I'm always skeptical of Republicans who think the path to electoral success is talking down the Republican Party," said Jason Roe, a Republican consultant.

California's controller is responsible for managing the state's cash, meeting payroll and paying bills on time. The officeholder also has the ability to audit state and local governments and sits on dozens of state boards and commissions, including those overseeing California's public pension system and natural resources.

The position can be a political steppingstone. Gray Davis served as controller before moving on to lieutenant governor and governor. Chiang is running for treasurer this year, and his campaign account has more than $3 million.

Republicans were unable to field a viable candidate for treasurer. Chiang is facing off with Greg Conlon, a retired accountant who has never held elective office and had just $2,445 in his campaign account as of Oct. 18.

By contrast, Swearengin has been elected to two terms as mayor of Fresno, winning reelection with 75% of the vote in California's fifth-largest city.

On election day, though, she'll have an "R" next to her name, and fewer than 30% of California voters are Republicans. More than 43% are Democrats, and the state's growing number of unaffiliated voters typically lean Democratic.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to trounce Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official, in his quest for a fourth and final term. And in down-ballot races like controller, analysts said, voters usually decide along party lines; they're unlikely to split their ballots by choosing a Democrat for governor and a Republican for controller.

It's barriers like those, said Republican consultant Mike Madrid, that have made Swearengin's candidacy an uphill climb.

"We can armchair-quarterback about tactics and strategy," he said. "But the reality is, there are some systemic barriers."

Twitter: @chrismegerian

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