Win or lose, special election shows Governor’s fundraising prowess

Behind the scenes, the California Republican Party has poured at least $650,000 into a committee supporting Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget-balancing propositions – the same measures the party loudly opposed at its convention.

The movement of money appears to underscore the governor’s continued importance as the biggest fundraising draw the party has to offer. While some in the GOP hem and haw about the governor’s lack of ideological purity and his job-performance ratings are low, he’s still vital to the party’s fiscal health.  

On Feb. 20, the day after the budget deal that put six initiatives on the May 19 ballot, the California Republican Party (CRP) transferred $250,000 to Schwarzenegger’s California Dream Team, the governor’s main ballot committee.
So why would they give money to the single biggest supporter of the initiatives?

“The governor has historically raised money into the party,” said CRP chairman Ron Nehring.

Periodically, Nehring said, the party will make “routine transfers” to the Governor’s committee in order to repay him for his fundraising prowess. The timing of the most recent donation was coincidental, he said; the CRP executive committee just happened to be meeting during the first day of their statewide convention in Sacramento.

Under the terms of Proposition 34, a campaign finance measure passed by voters in 2000, they couldn’t put strings on the money.

“Directed contributions are not permissible,” Nehring said. “We can’t make a transfer to another entity and then say it must be used for this purpose or not.”

Though bloggers and columnists jumped on them immediately, the party did not officially oppose the ballot measures until a vote at an executive committee meeting on April 19. According to party spokesman Hector Barajas, the CRP will make no further donations to the Dream Team until after the special election has passed.

A host of other large donors have also given to the Dream Team recently. Software giant Intuit put in $100,000 at the end of April. Since then, various members of the Fisher family, owners of The Gap clothing stores, have collectively contributed $200,000.

Overall, the committee has raised over $4 million since the beginning of the year. It currently has about $1.5 million on hand, but spokeswoman Julie Soderlund declined to say if they would be putting more into Budget Reform Now.

“The Dream Team also supports other priorities of the governor that could go to the ballot, such as a campaign finances reform efforts or other governmental and political reform efforts that may be on ballot, down the line,” she said.

Both Soderlund and Barajas noted that Dream Team money doesn’t just go to committees and ads but also to support the governor’s busy travel schedule. Its 2009 expenses include a $48,000 payment to Executive Jet Management last month.

The party also made a $400,000 payment to the Dream Team in January, well before the budget deal was signed.

However, past donations have corresponded to the party’s position on what the Dream Team was pushing. For instance, in the 2008 election, Schwarzenegger used the Dream Team to funnel nearly $2.5 million to Prop. 11, a redistricting measure that passed by less than two points. The CRP was neutral on Prop. 11 and also gave the Dream Team a mere $6,000 during the two-year cycle.  

In 2005, Schwarzenegger used a different special election to push a batch of reform initiatives to reform government in a way that was at odds with public employee unions. The package of propositions would have increased the time it took public school teachers to get tenure, made it more onerous for unions to spend dues on political activities, and imposed a spending limit on state government. The governor’s committee, then called Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team, ultimately raised and spent $34 million in the failed effort.

The CRP didn’t give anything to the committee during 2005. But they did give $800,000 in late 2004, before the campaign was announced. This was also before Schwarzenegger hired chief of staff Susan Kennedy, formerly cabinet secretary to his predecessor, Democrat Gray Davis, and was generally seen as more conservative than he is today.

While the CRP has been racked with fiscal problems, Schwarzenegger remains its most prodigious fundraiser. For the 2005-06 cycle, the party took in $60.9 million. This followed $31.4 million for 2003-04.

In the 2001-02 cycle, before Schwarzenegger was elected, the CRP took in a mere $15.3 million.

The CRP’s Barajas said one does have to give the governor his due. When he was first elected, he said, Schwarzenegger could draw 5,000 people to an event just by saying he would be there. More recently, he’s been able to bring in big names like John McCain, Newt Gingrich and actor John Voight for appearances.

“You really can’t put a number on it,” Barajas said. “The governor himself, just as a name, carries quite a bit of weight in California.”

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