Political fundraising and spending has reached unprecedented levels in the Tri-Counties, with the race for the state’s 19th Senate District adding up to nearly $7 million. At the same time, the Tri-Counties has contributed about $4 million to the presidential campaigns of Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrat Sen. Barack Obama.
The contest for the 19th Senate District – between Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson and Republican Tony Strickland, both former state Assembly members – has become one of the most watched races in the state because it could decide which party controls the budget process.
Democrats already control 25 of 40 seats in the state senate, two seats shy of a two-thirds majority. Republicans appear to have all but conceded the other crucial race, leaving the 19th Senate District to decide whether Democrats will have the power to override a gubernatorial veto and pass a budget, which requires a two-thirds vote for approval.
Already the race has proved costly. As of Oct. 18, the most recent campaign finance reporting deadline, the Jackson campaign had raised $2.5 million and spent $2 million as of Oct. 29, according to information filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
Strickland raised even more, pulling in $3 million and spending $2.9 million as of Oct. 29. He raised nearly $1 million in early October.
“I’ve really never seen anything at this level in this area,” said Herbert Gooch, an associate professor of political science at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. “As far as I know, this is virtually unprecedented, certainly in this area and probably in the state.”
The 19th District covers most of Santa Barbara County except Santa Maria, much of the east and west areas of Ventura County except the city of Ventura, and parts of Los Angeles County.
The best indicator of statewide interest in the race comes from the vast sums of money donated to the campaigns from groups outside the area, such as the nearly $40,000 Strickland received from groups representing contractors, insurers and mortgage brokers. The Republican also received $1.6 million from the state Republican party and party committees in Monterey, Riverside, Yolo and other counties.
For her part, Jackson received $1.4 million from Democratic party organizations and at least $176,000 from unions representing carpenters, service workers, teachers and firefighters.
Yet another source of political funding comes from independent expenditures. To work around strict limits on contributions directly to campaigns, interest groups can spend large bundles of their own money to try to sway a race as long as they don’t communicate or coordinate with the campaigns.
Independent expenditures in the contest for the 19th District have shot past $1 million, with Jackson receiving about $460,000 worth of support and Strickland $1.3 million.
The race has become contentious in part because the district’s composition has changed. What was once considered a safe Republican seat has become a district nearly split down the middle, with about 40 percent of registered voters declared as Republicans and about 38 percent as Democrats.
“The distribution of the two parties, which are just about equal at this point, that makes this all the more exciting,” Gooch said. “One almost has the feeling it’s acting as a lightning rod for attention that otherwise might go elsewhere.”
Some experts think a majority rule by one party could help smooth out the state’s budget process, which went a record 85 days over deadline this year. The bill that finally passed was widely decried as a temporary fix to the state’s multi-billion-dollar shortfall.
“California is one of two states with the supermajority budget rule. We’re also one of the two states with the worst budget mess in the country” said Eric Smith, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Unless the supermajority rule changes, “Giving one party or the other control of the budget really will solve a lot of our fiscal problems.”
As the 19th District race has played out, tri-county residents have also become engaged in one of the most intense presidential elections in decades. They have given $2.9 million to Obama and $1.1 million to McCain, according to a Business Times analysis of federal campaign finance records. The high rate of giving for that contest has probably contributed to the fervor of local races, Gooch said.
“I think people have a tendency to misconceive money in elections,” Gooch said. “They think there’s a set amount out there, so if you spend on one set of candidates it exhausts the pile. But increased interest causes the pie to grow.”