Politics & Government

Outside groups dominating California election spending this year

WASHINGTON — A pro-life group ponied up $31.58 on Monday to support San Joaquin Valley congressional candidate Jeff Denham.

It was a drop in the bucket, but the bucket is getting bigger.

So-called independent expenditures are soaring this year, buoyed by Supreme Court rulings. The result shapes political campaigns within California and well beyond.

"It comes from both parties," Modesto-based political consultant Mike Lynch said Thursday. "Independent expenditures, in their myriad forms, are utilized by right wingers, left wingers and the special interests of every industry."

Outside groups, apart from party campaign committees, have already spent more than $75 million on federal races this year. This will escalate quickly in the final month of the 2010 campaign.

Some campaign spending by outside groups is both modest and transparent, like the National Right to Life Committee's pro-Denham newspaper ad.

Denham is currently a Republican state senator from Atwater. He's heavily favored to win the 19th Congressional District, which stretches from Modesto to Fresno via the Sierra Nevada.

Another Valley candidate, Republican Andy Vidak, likewise received the benefit of a pro-life ad valued at $31.58, records show. Vidak is challenging Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

The more competitive the race, the greater the outside spending.

On Thursday, an anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List reported pumping $50,000 into a television ad against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Not that Boxer is defenseless. Planned Parenthood reported spending $29,944 on Friday for a mailer supporting the veteran Democratic senator, while the California Nurses Association spent $16,102 on pro-Boxer phone banks.

Still other outside spending efforts combine ambition with a cloak of secrecy.

A Washington-based group called American Principles in Action, for instance, has reported spending $107,919 on behalf of Boxer's GOP opponent, Carly Fiorina. The group itemizes expenses for the Federal Election Commission; reporting, for instance, an $890 bill paid in September to the Lexington Plaza Hotel in Stockton.

But as a non-profit organization granted 501 (c)(4) status by the Internal Revenue Service, American Principles in Action need not publicly disclose its donors.

"It's hard to track," Lynch said of some outside spending. "It might be coming from something like 'Americans for Justice,' and you don't know who they are."

Former White House political operative Karl Rove, for instance, has helped rally funding for a Washington-based group called American Crossroads. Rove is speaking Friday at the University of California at Merced, though students have agreed to his ground rules that include strict limits on reporters and tape recording.

American Crossroads essentially takes two forms.

One is a standard political committee, which reports both spending and donors. So far, it has invested more than $7.3 million in Senate races in Illinois, Kentucky and Colorado, among other states. Its donors include Texas oilman Trevor Rees-Jones, who gave $1 million in August, federal filings show.

Corporations can make unlimited contributions to these independent expenditure groups, under the 2009 Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The ruling, for instance, enabled a Louisiana company called the Dixie Rice Agricultural Corp. to give American Crossroads $1 million in August.

American Crossroads also has a sister organization, a 501 (c)(4) called Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies. This group has also spent more than $3.7 million. Unlike American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS publicly reports what it spends but not what it takes in.

"The problem is you don't know who their donors are," said Tara Malloy, counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.

Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the American Crossroads groups, said via e-mail Thursday that Crossroads GPS spent $1 million on Medicare-issue ads in the California Senate race in August.

"(There are) no new buys currently scheduled," Collegio added, "but that could change pending the competitiveness of the Senate race and several House contests there."

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