Calif. Senate race draws energy, big ag, showbiz money

By Anne C. Mulkern | 02/09/2016 07:22 AM EST

The race for California’s open Senate seat has prompted energy company owners, farmers, artificial turf makers, Hollywood stars, media conglomerates and a former secretary of State to open their wallets in support of candidates.

The race for California’s open Senate seat has prompted energy company owners, farmers, artificial turf makers, Hollywood stars, media conglomerates and a former secretary of State to open their wallets in support of candidates.

They are among those contributing the most to California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D) and former state Republican Chairman George "Duf" Sundheim.

"These seats don’t come open very often," said Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist in California. "When they do, everyone understands that whoever grabs these seats are probably going to be in them for a long time. It almost propels people to play in terms of funding of these campaigns."


Harris for now has a fundraising edge over the others in the battle to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), who is retiring after four terms. Harris over the last year raised $7.9 million and had nearly $4 million on hand, according to new paperwork filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Sanchez compiled $2.7 million and had $2.1 million on hand at year’s end. Sundheim, the GOP candidate with the most money, raised $300,777 and had $69,683 on hand.

Harris has attracted some high-profile support. She has received $2,700 each from actors Ben Affleck, Maria Bello and Don Cheadle and $5,400 each from Kate Capshaw, Jon Cryer, Seth MacFarlane, Sean Penn and producer/director J.J. Abrams. The heads of Universal Studios, Fox Television Studios and HBO also contributed maximum allowed amounts.

"She’s got a certain star quality," Darry Sragow, an attorney and Democratic strategist, said of Harris. "She clearly networks well with these kind of wealthy contributors. She seems to have a significant base with those contributors."

Harris’ campaign said that 80 percent of her contributions came in amounts of $100 or less.

The extra money Harris has doesn’t necessarily give her leverage over Sanchez in the liberal-leaning state, some analysts cautioned. California has open primaries, where the top two finishers advance to the general election, regardless of political party.

With the number of progressive voters in the state, there could be a two-Democrat race in November, said South. Sanchez can continue to raise and preserve her campaign money, even at a slower pace than Harris, he said, and still succeed in the June primary.

"Loretta Sanchez does not need to win this primary. She only needs to come in second," South said. "You don’t even have to come in a close second in order to clear out the field and go to a one-on-one runoff throughout the fall."

"Polling shows Sanchez is clearly in second place even without any real campaigning going on," South added. With her Latino surname, the large number of Latinos in California and her existing support base in her Orange County House district, "she probably doesn’t have to spend a lot of money to come in second in the primary."

Registered voters in California last year broke down as 43 percent Democrat and 28 percent Republican, with nearly 24 percent listed as "no party preference."

Other GOP candidates for the Senate seat include another former state Republican chairman, Tom Del Beccaro. Along with Sundheim, they’re likely to split the GOP vote in the primary, letting two Democrats advance, South said.

However, a nonpartisan analyst who studies election turnout said just looking at the 28 percent registered Republicans is misleading.

A portion of the "no party preference" group votes conservative. And Republicans turn out for primary elections in larger numbers more consistently than Democrats, said Paul Mitchell, vice president at Political Data Inc.

In many recent primary elections, about 43 to 46 percent of the votes cast have been for Republicans, he said. For both Harris and Sanchez to take the top two primary spots, Mitchell said, they would need to divide the votes for Democrats about in half, with Republicans also splitting the GOP turnout evenly.

"There is this tiny, tiny sweet spot in which you can have this anomaly happen," Mitchell said.

But if one Republican grabs a bigger share of the GOP vote, and one of the Democrats has an edge, it’s likely to be one Democrat and one GOP member on the general election ballot, Mitchell said. The Democrat, most analysts agree, would then be heavily favored in November.

Money difference small in scale

Sanchez, who’s in her 10th term, last year transferred more than $991,000 from her House campaign fund to her Senate race account. She loaned herself $300,000. Another $142,700 was transferred to her from other committees, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers PAC and the Committee for Hispanic Causes/Building Our Leadership Diversity PAC.

Subtracting those, the amount she raised last year from individual contributions was about $1.2 million. She spent about half of that, $582,000.

Sanchez’s campaign was sent a number of questions about her fundraising and contributors. Her spokesman Luis Vizcaino responded only that "we are on track to advance from the primary to the general election."

The difference between the money Harris and Sanchez have on hand also is small considering how much it takes to run a general election race in California, said strategist Sragow.

"The massive amounts of money you need to get on television … you’re talking 40 million to 50 million bucks," Sragow said. With the amounts each woman has right now, "you’re still talking not nearly enough money to wage a campaign," he said.

Sanchez has an advantage in that a growing portion of state voters are Latino, strategist South said.

The highest turnout for Latino voters in California was 22 percent in the 2012 general election, he said. However, typically in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Harris lives, voters turn out more consistently to vote than those in the greater Los Angeles area.

Turf companies, media empires contributing

Harris’ campaign spokesman Nathan Click, asked about how Harris had gathered large support from Hollywood, said that "people across the state of California are responding to this campaign." He would not specifically say if she had made outreach to the film and television industry.

Sragow noted that Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, is managing director of the West Coast at the Venable LLP law firm. He represents clients in industries that include media, advertising and entertainment, according to a biography on the firm’s website.

Harris also took in campaign contributions from executives at Vanity Fair, Condé Nast and Viacom Inc. and from Jonelle Procope, president and CEO of the Apollo Theater in New York City.

"We’re seeing a lot of support in California, but also she’s gotten a lot of support across the country," Click said.

Harris’ other backers included former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who gave $5,400. Arno Harris, CEO of solar project developer Recurrent Energy, gave $5,400, as well. Steven Roth, vice president at World Oil Corp., a South Gate, Calif.-based oil and natural gas extraction company, gave $2,700.

"Clearly, a relatively disparate set of interests view her as someone who will be making decisions in terms of energy policy, whether as a U.S. senator or as attorney general," Sragow said. Harris, if she loses, will be state attorney general through 2018.

Sanchez received $2,700 from Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. She took in $5,400 each from Julie Campos of Campos Brothers Farms and from Teresa Esteve of Ben and Teresa Ranch, both in Caruthers, Calif., along with $5,400 each from Kris Grant, owner of National Synthetic Turf, and Leo Moya, owner of All Season Turf.

Energy and environmental issues aren’t likely to be a dividing line between Sanchez and Harris for Democratic-leaning voters, South said.

"California is very environmentally sensitive. We’ve been a world leader on global climate change. It’s kind of a decided issue in California," South said. "Usually it’s very hard to find daylight" on the issue "between two Democrats running for state office."

Republican Sundheim received $2,700 from Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz — who has recommended free-market approaches to combating climate change.

Large spending on hotels, airfares

Some analysts have noted that Harris has spent large amount of her campaign funds. At the end of last year, she’d gone through $3.9 million.

Expenses included spending at least $430,000 on campaign consultants, $160,000 on fundraising consultants and $50,000 on pollster David Binder.

There also were multiple purchases of airline tickets for more than $2,000 each and stays in five-star hotels that include the St. Regis in Washington, D.C., the Four Seasons in Boston and the Waldorf Astoria in Chicago. The most expensive of those was $1,886 for the St. Regis. She also had a $3,157 stay with Airbnb in San Francisco.

"She has a very huge burn rate," said one analyst who asked not to be identified to speak freely. "What the hell is she spending money on?"

The campaign last fall replaced manager Rory Steele with new head Juan Rodriguez.

"As we’ve acknowledged before, we have made cuts and took steps to address our spending to get it into alignment with our strategy for the primary and the general," said Harris spokesman Click.