The West

While conspiracy lawsuits unfold, Devin Nunes keeps collecting campaign cash – $7 million of it

Rep. Devin Nunes has the most cash on hand of any House member this cycle, sitting at a cool $7 million.

That gives him a huge advantage as he prepares a 2020 reelection campaign in which the Democratic Party has pledged to make him one of its top targets.

Nunes’ robust fundraising operation has only sped up since he began filing lawsuits early this year accusing Twitter, news organizations and Democratic activists of conspiring against him when he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and one of President Donald Trump’s top defenders in Congress.

Campaign finance records show he isn’t spending much of the political money on the lawsuits.

Steven Biss, the Virginia attorney who is representing Nunes in each lawsuit, has not appeared by name on any campaign expenses through the third quarter.

A Fresno law firm, Kapetan Brothers, represented Nunes in a lawsuit the campaign filed and dropped against a retired Tulare County farmer and several Democratic activists alleging they conspired against him by challenging his description of himself as a farmer on 2018 election ballots. Nunes’ campaign paid the law firm about $3,400, according to the latest expense report.

The other four lawsuits are still active, with three unfolding in Virginia and one in Iowa. In one of them, Nunes is suing McClatchy, the parent company of The Fresno Bee, alleging the news organization defamed him in a story about a lawsuit against a winery in which the congressman has a limited partnership. McClatchy is fighting the lawsuit and has filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Two Democrats are challenging Nunes, R-Tulare, and have raised respectable amounts of money that pale in comparison to Nunes’ funds.

“I think they need to consider their credibility,” said Rob Stutzman, a veteran GOP strategist based in Sacramento. “I think the seat is beyond their reach anyway, but with this type of advantage in hard dollars, it’s not even believable that they’re going to come after him.”

“This is a strategic validation of everything he’s doing,” Stutzman added.

Nunes raised about $2.6 million in the last quarter, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed Tuesday. He has no debts and has already spent $3.2 million this cycle, but still has $7 million in cash on hand.

Nunes has been spending most of his money on various types of advertising. Just in the last quarter, he spent about $125,000 on text message advertisements, more than $300,000 on mailer fees such as printing and postage, $141,000 in media buys and more than $48,000 in online advertising, including Facebook.

Phil Arballo, a Democratic businessman challenging Nunes, raised $250,000 last quarter, making him the most well-funded Democrat in the race. He has about $240,000 in cash on hand at the close of the reporting period.

Most of Arballo’s donations have come from ActBlue, a website that eases small donations to Democrats from across the country.

“No amount of money can buy the respect that Devin Nunes has lost in the valley. He abandoned our community for the national spotlight,” Arballo said in a statement to McClatchy. “Our campaign is built to win. We will have the resources and grassroots organization needed to take advantage of record turnout in 2020 and finally bring representation to this district.”

Democrat Bobby Bliatout, who was the third-place candidate in the primary for the 2018 election against Nunes, raised $93,000 last quarter and has about $188,000 in cash on hand.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named Nunes one of their top targets in 2020. The only other Californian on the list is Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is facing criminal charges.

That national committee hasn’t put any money in the race – yet.

In 2018, Nunes faced a surprisingly well-funded challenge from Democrat Andrew Janz. Janz raised about $9 million for the campaign, while Nunes brought in $12 million. Janz lost the election by about five points, Nunes’ narrowest margin of victory to Congress ever.

Stutzman said he doubts Democrats in 2020 will be able to get as close as Janz now that Nunes has a lower profile as a member of the minority party in the House.

“The fundraising environment for Arballo doesn’t exist the same way it existed for Janz,” Stutzman said. “(Nunes) is a member of the minority and therefore not nearly as relevant or threatening.”

This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2019 to correct the amount of money that Bobby Bliatout’s campaign has on hand.

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.