Weeks before the June 5 primary, the race for California attorney general has incumbent Xavier Becerra and Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones trading jabs over campaign contributions as the Democrats prepare for a possible showdown in November.
The sparring, minor as it may be, is being watched closely by the two Republicans in the contest. They are each hoping the Democrats will split their voters and give at least one of them enough votes to be among the top two finishers who will advance to the runoff regardless of party.
The four candidates are set to debate twice on Tuesday in the first and possibly only debate with all the candidates.
The Democrats' back-and-forth began this month with an ad posted on social media by the Jones campaign in which the narrator says: "Xavier Becerra is funding his campaign with money from oil, insurance and tobacco companies. Dave Jones is not."
Becerra's accepted campaign contributions include $7,300 — the maximum allowed — each from oil companies Chevron and Phillips 66. Tobacco donations to Becerra included $7,300 from Philip Morris USA and $5,000 from Reynolds American, Inc. He also got insurance industry donations from Cigna Health and Life Insurance.
Becerra, who is building a national reputation as a challenger to the Trump administration, is widely seen as the front-runner. Jones is trying to combat this dynamic as he seeks a spot in the top two.
"Jones is convinced, as I am, that it will be a Democratic affair in November, and he's using his primary funds to that purpose," said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University.
The Becerra campaign is working to defend its front-runner status and the contributions.
"Campaign contributions don't impact the work of the attorney general's office. His record speaks for itself," said Roger Salazar, a spokesman for Becerra.
Salazar also countered Jones' insistence that he doesn't accept campaign money from insurance interests, pointing out that the commissioner's campaign has received tens of thousands of dollars from attorneys who have represented the industry.
Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith and almost 100 of its attorneys have made $114,000 in contributions to Jones' various campaign committees since 2013, according to state campaign finance records. Just last year, the firm and dozens of attorneys contributed $24,000 to Jones' campaign for attorney general, most of it in $500 donations at a fundraising event last October. The firm's clients have included multiple insurance giants like AllState and Geico.
"The insurance commissioner regulates insurance companies, not attorneys," Jones said in a statement about the donations. "And attorneys are not the decision makers for insurers."
Given that more attention is focused on the heated race for governor, the tit-for-tat spat between Jones and Becerra is unlikely to sway many voters, especially because the two candidates agree on many issues, including the state's need to challenge Trump administration policies that conflict with state policies.
Neither candidate was endorsed by the California Democratic Party at its convention in February, indicating party activists are split between the two Democratic leaders. Jones received 56% of votes cast by delegates and Becerra got 42%, shy of the 60% needed for an endorsement.
The incumbent does have the support of Gov. Jerry Brown.
Brown, who appointed Becerra attorney general in 2016 to serve out the remainder of the now-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris' term, is featured in a television ad by the Becerra campaign that began airing over the weekend. In it, Brown tells voters that he appointed Becerra "because he's the right man at the right time."
The California Republican Party has endorsed Steven Bailey, a retired El Dorado County judge, for the position. Another Republican candidate is Los Angeles attorney Eric Early.
Bailey has also come under fire from Jones, whose campaign has pointed out the former judge is facing a wide-ranging ethics investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance.
Parke Skelton, a consultant for Jones, complained that the case will not be heard by the commission until after the June primary.
Based on a preliminary investigation, the commission will review allegations that Bailey engaged in improper conduct before retiring as a judge last August including inadequately reporting travel and accepting gifts like tickets to events and golf green fees.
The inquiry will also look at whether Bailey inappropriately used his position to raise funds for his attorney general campaign and failed to take a leave of absence before campaigning.
Bailey's attorney has filed papers denying that he acted improperly and disputed Jones' criticism as maneuvering to try to secure a top two spot in the primary.
"We have said all along that this inquiry is a political attack," said Corey Uhden, a spokesman for the Bailey campaign. "It is nothing more than an attempt by liberal appointees of Gov. Brown to disparage the Republican candidate for attorney general who California Democrats fear most."