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State Democratic Party spending big on close races

Since Sept. 9, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, has been hammering her GOP senate opponent on the airwaves. In fact, she had the airwaves to herself for two full weeks before Ceres Mayor Anthony Cannella put up his own TV and radio spots featuring current Se. Jeff Denham, R-Merced.

If you take out what each candidate has received from their own state political parties, Caballero has outgained Cannella $522,000 to $385,000. But the California Democratic Party has given Caballero $750,000. The State Democratic Central Committee (DCC) has also put in over $200,000, much of it by picking up campaign expenses and other “non-monetary contributions.” This party money makes up the majority of what she has raised.

By contrast, Canella has gotten a mere $65,500 from the California Republican Party, and another $3,000 from the Merced Republicans. In other words, this 12-to-one difference in state party support has turned Caballero’s relatively modest fundraising lead into a dominating advantage.

That’s the kind of financial backing that allows a candidate to take to the airwaves in early September, while opponents have to “keep their powder dry.” And it’s taking place in the 12th Senate District, which Republicans have held since 1993; holding onto that seat is key to GOP hopes of picking up ground in the state Senate.

With a down economy and lots of anti-incumbent fervor, 2010 is supposed to be a good year for Republicans. But their candidates appear to be working at steep financial disadvantages in key races.

Cannella spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart said all of this Democratic Party money has been a response to a strong Cannella campaign. He’s raised more money inside the district than any incumbent around the state, she said.

“It just goes to show that there is strong local support,” Lockhart said.

But SD 12 is just one of several key races where the state Democratic Party is putting in a lot more money than their Republican counterparts.

Over in another race that’s likely to be close, the DCC has showered AD 10 incumbent Alyson Huber, D-Lodi, with $315,000 in direct contributions since late August. This follows $143,000 in “non-monetary” support from the DCC to her campaign.

The Republican she defeated in the closest California legislative race of 2008 — one decided so late in a recount that legislative directories had to be printed with a replacement page pasted into them — has not done so well. Former San Joaquin County Supervisor Jack Sieglock has gotten just under $31,000 from his party, the vast majority of it in the last month. In a year where wealthy top Republican candidates have given huge amounts to their own campaigns – think Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina and Steve Poizner – it’s interesting to note that Sieglock is his own biggest donor, putting in $400,000 in an effort to stay financially competitive.

“The Democrats always have a cash advantage on us,” said Mark Standriff, chief spokesman for the CRP. “But we’re spending when it counts most in terms of reaching the public, and we are fully committed to fully funding all of our races. So stay tuned.”

Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican and the author of the California Target Book, agreed. “The Dems have the money. They always do. They run the state.”

But he added that in the era of absentee voting, campaign crunch time comes earlier. Any money put into a campaign past early October provides diminishing returns, he said.
“Everybody is aware now that we have an election month instead of an election day,” Hoffenblum said. “Many of us will be voting soon. Early money is more important than it’s ever been.”

In order to get maximum effect these days, Hoffenblum said, it’s best to get money distributed and ad buys in by early October — right when large numbers of voters start to send in their absentee ballots.

Much of the party money has been coming in recent weeks. Up through the beginning of September, the DCC had given $8,000 to SD16 candidate Michael Rubio. Last week, it sent $129,000 his way.

His GOP opponent, Tim Thiesen, has raised only $154,000 total, including $16,000 he donated himself. The CRP gave him $20,000 in late August.
As of Aug. 1, the state Republican Party was sitting on $2.1 million.

The Democrats had a $8.4 million war chest. They’ve put about $1.7 million behind state legislative candidates, and given another $2.25 million to Jerry Brown, who is facing off against self-financed wealthy Republican Meg Whitman in the race for governor.

There is at least one exception: AD 15. Democrats have only a 5-point registration advantage in the district, and it has become a key target for a GOP pickup. It’s the seat where Guy Houston served as the only Bay Area Republican legislator before being termed out in 2008.

Through the end of July, the state Democratic Party had given only $3,250 to incumbent Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon. Since then it’s given her another $17,000. Her Republican opponent, Abram Wilson, has actually gotten more money from his party, about $29,000, most of it since the beginning of August.

But this may be the exception that proves the rule. Buchanan has been on the outs with some in her party leadership after a quixotic 2009 run for an open congressional seat against prohibitive favorite – and now congressman – John Garamendi. Several leading Democrats urged her not to run and to instead concentrate on keeping the seat. She edged Wilson by a mere four points in 2008, after the party poured major resources into getting her elected.

Wilson, meanwhile, is one of a very few prominent African-American Republicans in the state. Even with all of these advantages for Wilson, Buchanan still holds a significant fundraising edge, thanks to major labor support.

The GOP did pick up a key win in a swing seat last month when former Assembly Republican Leader Sam Blakeslee knocked off former Assemblyman John Laird in a special election to replace Sen. Abel Maldonado, who become Lt. Gov.

But that race was to retain a Republican seat—though many party die-hards didn’t really consider Maldonado and member of the GOP. It also featured an all-around effort by Republican staffers, and a far more even monetary effort from the parties. The state Democratic Party put $440,000 behind Laird, while the CRP put $357,000 behind Blakeslee.
There is still time, Hoffenblum notes, saying both sides still have enough funds to change the shape of a race with a late financial bet. He also noted that both parties — and the Republicans in particular — have been focusing on get-out-the-vote efforts, with the idea that this year will hinge on making sure the party faithful actually show up.

In the end, he said, the Republican may pick up a couple of seats, but the Democrats will still control both houses of the Legislature. On the morning of Nov. 3, he said, one big trend may be something neither of the major parties would want to celebrate.

“I think whoever the third party candidates are, they’re going to get a huge amount of votes,” Hoffenblum said. “Voters are unhappy with both parties.”

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