The California Assn. of Realtors has put more than $207,000 toward getting Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown (D-San Bernardino) reelected in a tough intra-party fight in the Inland Empire.
But instead of sticking to a single candidate, the political power player has also quietly been funneling money into a committee that's backing the race's sole Republican, Aissa Chanel Sanchez, a 24-year-old regional sales training manager for SolarCity who has no political experience and who has raised no money of her own.
Sanchez has gotten about $10,000 in mailers and other support from a group called the California Alliance for Progress and Education, which is bankrolled by the Realtors association, and by the California New Car Dealers Assn. Both groups also have contributed to Brown, a highly unusual circumstance as the incumbent faces a challenge from her left.
JobsPAC, a committee headed by the California Chamber of Commerce and supported by various business interests, has also kicked in $16,869 for mailers supporting Sanchez. JobsPAC has not endorsed Brown, but a chamber committee has given her money this year.
The race for Assembly District 47 already is one of the most hotly contested this campaign season. More than $2 million in outside spending has flooded into the election, with nearly all of that going to support the race's two Democrats, Brown, 72, and Eloise Reyes, a 60-year-old Colton attorney who has garnered the backing of liberal players inclduing the Sierra Club and the SEIU.
Why would these well-heeled interests be spending on a political neophyte? The short answer is they could be trying to game California's relatively new top-two primary system, under which the two candidates with the most votes advance after the primary, regardless of political party.
The relatively meager $27,000 in spending to support a Republican could help bolster GOP turnout in the working-class district that stretches from Fontana to San Bernardino and siphon votes away from Reyes, another Latina in a district where more than half of registered voters are Latino.
That investment "could mean the difference between Brown running a virtually uncontested race in November, or facing a huge battle royale" against a fellow Democrat with backing from powerful progressive groups, said Parke Skelton, a Democratic consultant.
The calculation is based on the conventional wisdom that even in a district where Democrats hold a 49%-22% voter registration advantage, Republicans will vote for GOP candidates in a primary race, even one who has no money and no real campaign. In that case, the two Democrats could split the remaining votes.
In a phone interview, Sanchez said she was initially "surprised" by the support from the Realtors and other groups.
"I think it's because I've made a lot of good contacts with people," she said. "I have a background in politics. That was actually my degree when I went to school."
When asked about a stark contrast between Brown and Sanchez and why the groups would spend money for both, only one offered praise for Sanchez.
In a statement, a California Real Estate Political Action Committee spokeswoman said it "supports many committees that support pragmatic candidates seeking elected office."
"CREPAC is focused on helping to elect Cheryl Brown," said Laiza Garcia, the PAC director of the association. She said the Sanchez-backing organization "is supported by many groups and has many objectives."
The California Chamber of Commerce declined to comment, with a spokesperson saying in an email, "As a matter of policy, we do not comment on matters involving our political strategy."
Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealers Assn., said it is "supporting the candidates that we believe are the two best, since it's a top-two primary, for franchise new car dealers and the motoring public. And those would be Ms. Brown and Ms. Sanchez."
The Reyes campaign is crying foul.
"Clearly the one person they don't want in there is ... the one who isn't going to be looking out for special-interest groups because I'm going to be looking out for the interests of voters," Reyes told The Times.
Asked about Sanchez, Reyes said, "I have not met her, I have not seen her ... and I have yet to meet someone [in the community] who has met her."
Leo Briones, a Reyes consultant, said he thinks the groups are trying to split the Democratic vote and edge out Reyes.
"But they're wrong," Briones said. "They underestimate the will of Eloise, for one, and most importantly, they also underestimate the will of our allies," like the United Food and Commercial Workers, whose regional council and local affiliates have poured more than $200,000 into committees to support her.
Sanchez, who lives with her parents in Fontana in the northwest corner of the district, says she didn't enter the race expecting to win. Since the new primary system began, two Democrats have advanced after the last two primary elections.
"It was just more of a confidence booster," she said. "I know people are looking at how young I am, but it's just a learning experience." Sanchez does not have an official campaign manager or a campaign website. She has not raised or spent any money, she said.
On the day of the candidate filing deadline, when her papers to run for the seat were submitted, Sanchez was on a trip in Hawaii, according to her Facebook page. (Notarized documents accompanying her candidacy papers were dated a week earlier, according to county elections officials.)
A day later, Sanchez wrote on Facebook, "I may or may not come back home to SoCal #movingtohawaii."
"You better!" wrote her father, a local politician himself. Another commenter wrote, "Madam candidate you must live in the district," to which her father replied, "Lol" and "Yeah Madam candidate the IE needs you," referring to the Inland Empire.
Sanchez said she was on a business trip and that she travels frequently for work, leaving her little time to campaign.
Sanchez's father, Idilio Sanchez, a Fontana city planning commissioner and chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce, told The Times that his daughter wanted to "get her feet wet" in politics.
Reyes supporters also have pointed out that Sanchez and her father call California GOP Chairman Jim Brulte a family friend. He is an influential political consultant in the Inland Empire, and despite being a Republican, he endorsed and contributed to Brown's campaign in 2012.
Sanchez said Brulte has encouraged her to run for office in the past. Both Sanchez and Brulte said he did not recruit her.
The idea that an outside group might back two candidates in a race is not new. Keeping Californians Working, another pro-Brown group that has spent more than $275,000, has used the tactic at least two other times in recent elections.
In 2014, the group spent $40,000 on mailers supporting a Republican and $48,000 to back Democrat Patrick O'Donnell in a safe Democratic race for Assembly District 70, where only 21% of registered voters are Republican. The Republican candidate only managed to raise $80,000, but was able to get past the top-two primary with 32% of the vote, ahead of O'Donnell's Democratic rival.
O'Donnell coasted to victory in November.
When Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey) was facing a crowded field of Democrats in an open seat for Assembly District 62, Keeping Californians Working spent just under $9,000 to support the sole Republican in the race. Republicans made up only 13% of registered voters, but the GOP candidate received 20% of the vote with a split Democratic field. Burke went on to defeat him with 76% of the vote in the general election.
Skelton said he expects these kinds of moves to increase as the most influential political players settle into the top-two system. "It will become more and more common as ... people realize that shaping the opposite party's candidate field is just as important a factor in determining who survives the runoff," he said. "There's too much incentive to engage in mischief."
Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this report.