WASHINGTON — Some challengers are out-raising incumbents, while one is flipping loans to his own campaign like hotcakes, as millions of dollars pour into California congressional races.
Newly drawn districts and open seats already had guaranteed 2012 would be a livelier year than unusual. Fresh campaign reports this week show exactly where this political energy is starting to coalesce.
"The money is important," state Assemblyman David Valadao, R-Hanford, said Wednesday. "It's the thing that shows you have support in the district."
Valadao is running for an open seat in the Republican-tilted 21st Congressional District, which includes Kings County and part of Kern County. He's sitting comfortably with $386,579 on hand, while Democrats have yet to field a candidate.
Campaign dollars reveal much more drama elsewhere, including the redrawn 7th Congressional District in Sacramento County. There, Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, has been outpaced in fundraising by the Democratic challenger, Ami Bera.
Bera had $918,873 on hand as of Dec. 31, new reports show, while Lungren had $521,205.
Although Bera's financial advantage is somewhat offset by his owing $272,865, much of it stemming from an unsuccessful 2010 campaign against Lungren, his fundraising success confirms the race as one to watch.
All told, Bera has raised $1.1 million for his 2012 race. Lungren, never known as a dynamic fundraiser, has raised a total of $776,245 for the campaign.
Bera contended in a statement that the support he's garnered "proves the voters want someone with real-world experience to face our nation's challenges," while Lungren's campaign team dismissed the disparity in dollars raised.
"Dan's fundraising totals are healthy and normal for someone who spends 99 percent of his time working hard to serve the people who elected him over Bera two years ago," Lungren's campaign consultant Rob Stutzman said Wednesday.
The Lungren-Bera race is one of three in California given the highest priority by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in the so-called "Red to Blue" program.
In another, former astronaut Jose Hernandez is in the more common position of having raised less than the incumbent, Republican Rep. Jeff Denham.
Denham, who has moved from Atwater to Turlock, reported having $809,526 on hand at the end of the year. Hernandez, who declared his candidacy in October and is moving from Houston back to his native San Joaquin County, reported having $130,527.
"We're right where we want to be," Denham said of his fundraising.
Like Bera during the 2010 campaign, former Republican Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado has been loaning his campaign money for a challenge to Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara. Maldonado's loans, though, have been short-lived.
On June 30, records show, Maldonado loaned his campaign $250,000. It boosted his cash on hand for the campaign period that ended the same day. On July 1, after the reporting period ended, the campaign paid him back.
On Sept. 30, the end of the next reporting period, Maldonado again loaned his campaign $250,000. On Oct. 1, the campaign paid him back. On Dec. 30, Maldonado again loaned his campaign $250,000. He will report April 15 whether this was immediately paid back.
"It's a game; that has no reality," Capps' campaign consultant Bill Carrick said in an interview Wednesday. "He's not raising real money."
Maldonado's spokesman Brandon Gesicki calls the short-term loans a public commitment by the candidate to spend money on the campaign; the money is invested to earn interest until it's needed for campaign purposes, Gesicki says.
Setting aside his current loans and debts, Maldonado reported having $380,145 on hand, having raised $50,324 in the last three months. Capps raised six times as much during the same period and had $1 million on hand with no campaign debts, according to the report made available late Tuesday.
The coastal California district, which includes San Luis Obispo County, also will be the potential target for spending by outside partisan groups, who already have been playing a big role in early stages of the 2012 campaign.
A much closer fundraising race is under way in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, where Republican political novice and Lodi native Ricky Gill is challenging Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, in the San Joaquin County-centered 9th Congressional District.
Gill reported having $837,617 on hand, topping McNerney's $780,339 on hand. Gill, a 24-year-old law student, boosted his showing in part by loaning his campaign a reported $142,839.
"It's going to be a competitive cycle; we expected that," McNerney's spokeswoman Lauren Smith said Wednesday.
Gill, remarkably, reported spending less than $2,000 on his campaign during the last three months of the year. Campaign expenses usually are much higher. Bera, for instance, reported spending $52,669 from October through December, while Hernandez reported spending $44,216.
Colusa County Supervisor Kim Dolbow Vann, a Republican running against Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, reported having $190,648 available, while Garamendi had $313,178.
In one of the nation's most closely watched races, pitting two Los Angeles-area Democrats against one another in the primary for a re-drawn district, Rep. Brad Sherman reported having $3.7 million on hand, while rival Rep. Howard Berman had $2.8 million.
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