If you haven’t noticed, your mail carrier certainly has: Election season has arrived in California and with it, the regular flood of political ads from unions, corporations and other special interest groups hoping to influence your vote.
Though contributions made directly to political candidates are capped by state law, no such limits apply to “independent expenditure” committees — so long as those outside influences are, in fact, independent and don’t coordinate with the campaigns they’re trying to help.
With early voting already underway and just two weeks to go before the June 7 primary, millions of dollars of help is now inundating California, showing up in races up and down the ballot. Perhaps you’ve driven past a curious bobble-headed billboard, had your mailbox stuffed with mailers sponsored by innocuous-sounding neighborhood groups or been puzzled by campaign ads that seem to be promoting the wrong candidate.
That’s all the handwork of what California election watchers refer to simply as “I.E.”
Though independent political spending is still dwarfed in California by old-fashioned direct contributions to candidates, it can play an outsized role in competitive elections, said Ann Ravel, who has served as the top campaign finance watchdog for both the state of California and the federal government. As an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for state Senate in one of 2020’s most fiercely competitive legislative races, she knows from first-hand experience.
“When you see it in person, it’s a lot different than when you see it as a regulator,” said Ravel, whose South Bay race against fellow Democrat Dave Cortese became a $6.2 million proxy battle between organized labor groups, housing interests and tech companies including Uber and Lyft. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh God, now I have to go to all these meetings with all these people and suck up to them?’”
Unlike relatively small individual contributions, six-figure spending by a single interest group in a close race can be difficult for a candidate to ignore, she said. “You have to be able to compete…I think that’s the problem.”
Another common feature of independent expenditure committees, said Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney, is that they most often play the role of bad cop, attacking candidates they want to knock off.
“It provides a certain degree of cover to the candidate who benefits,” he said. “They can’t be accused of going negative.”
Even for seasoned politicos and election reporters, the rivers of cash can be complicated to track — and sometimes even convoluted to make sense of. For the fascinated, outraged or perplexed voter, consider this your user’s guide.
Shades of blue
Accounting and financial oversight doesn’t always inflame political passions, but the race to become California’s next controller is shaping up to be among the most competitive statewide races. With five well-financed candidates — four of them Democrats — and no clear front-runner, it’s a remarkably open race. Just in terms of money raised by the campaigns, themselves, it’s the highest-dollar statewide race.
The conventional wisdom is that Lanhee Chen, the lone Republican, will snag one of the two spots for the November ballot. That leaves the four Democrats fighting for the second spot.
Enter JobsPAC, an IE committee sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce.
“The race for a spot in the general election is a jump ball between the four major Democratic candidates — each start with limited name ID and no statewide bully pulpit for communications,” reads a strategic memo produced by the committee earlier this month.