ENCINITAS — While the primary elections are still months away, some local candidates for the California Legislature are already raking in heavy contributions from both individual and organizational donors.
Electoral fundraising at this point in the primary process is significant, as it allows some candidates to establish themselves as frontrunners or challengers to incumbents, while also establishing early leverage that allows candidates to attract more donations later on in the race, according to Carl Luna, a political scientist with the University of San Diego.
“It’s significant in allowing candidates to show how formidable they’re going to be in hopes of making a serious challenge in the race, plus the more you raise early it gives you an advantage in that you can raise more and more, and it also gives you leverage in supporting other political movements moving forward,” said Luna.
As with most elections, Luna said that the early fundraising process typically favors incumbents or established officeholders, such as Assemblyman Brian Maienschein (D-San Diego), Assemblywoman Laurie Davies (R-Laguna Niguel) and Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear.
The impacts of statewide redistricting further exacerbated fundraising disparities, according to Luna, who said incumbents or established politicians running for office generally don’t wait for redistricting to be completed to start fundraising, as they’re confident in campaigning even in a district that might have slightly altered borders.
Conversely, for a challenger/political newcomer, different district lines mean more and can alter a candidate’s decision about whether to run at all — and that largely forced such candidates to delay fundraising until redistricting had been finalized (redistricting maps for both state Assembly and Senate races were released in late December).
Matt Gunderson, a Republican newcomer running for the 38th State Senate District seat, is neck-and-neck with Democrat opponent Blakespear in total campaign contributions, but his success isn’t typical of a non-incumbent.
“The redistricting process isn’t meant to benefit incumbents but that’s the outcome essentially,” Luna said. “It benefits incumbents who pretty much know where they’re running and have established donor bases, while if you’re a challenger you’re starting more from scratch and you can’t go knocking on doors because you don’t really know where you’re running…basically incumbents in 2021 could enter the race then and start building their donor base while challengers had to deal with this four-month delay caused by redistricting.”
Assembly District 74
As the incumbent, Davies currently leads the way in contributions in AD-74, having received $227,805.99 as of the end of 2021, per documents filed with the California Secretary of State. Her top ten donors are AMFM Healthcare, United Auburn Indian Community of the Auburn Rancheria, Reynolds American Inc., Walbern LP (a real estate development firm), Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits LLC, Anheuser-Busch Companies, Chevron Corporation, Davita Healthcare, Irvine Management Company, and Steve and Carla Galvanoni (Steve Galvanoni is the co-founder of a real estate and investment firm in Mission Viejo).
Democratic challenger Laurie Girand, a business owner, author, and social justice activist, said that she has raised $208,000 so far in contributions, including $100,000 of her own money, since launching her campaign in December. Girand declined to release the names of her top donors but specified that all of her contributions have come from individual donors except for a $1,000 donation from Women in Leadership.
San Clemente Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan, a Democrat and former Homeland Security attorney, only launched his campaign in mid-January and said that he doesn’t have any fundraising to report so far.
Duncan, who ran unsuccessfully for AD-74 in 2020, said that he’s running on a platform centered around issues of climate change, affordable housing and homelessness, and economic policy issues that affect small businesses and the middle class.
“This district is largely coastal and sees the effects of climate change on an inordinate level, it’s sensitive to the changes of the coastal environment…we need to stabilize climate change and prevent some of those detrimental effects at this point, and I think that’s something that every resident of this district can get behind,” Duncan said.
Duncan also touted his record of working across the aisle with Republicans as an officeholder in San Clemente and expressed that he appeals to a wider variety of district voters than either Girand or Davies.
“I’m the only candidate here with a track record of working across the aisle to generate a consensus and get things done. It’s critically important that voters have a candidate who…has been able to bring people of different opinions and positions together to make a positive difference and improve people’s lives, particularly in this polarized environment, and I have done that.”
Assembly District 76
In AD 76, Democrat incumbent Maienschein leads in fundraising with $356,325, according to the Secretary of State’s website. Maienschein’s top ten donors are the California-Nevada Conference of Operating Engineers PAC, PACE of California school employees association committee, AFL-CIO, California Nurses Association PAC, America’s Physician Group Cal PAC, AMR HOLDCO, INC. California Dental Association PAC, Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association PAC, Personal Insurance Federation of CA Agents and employees PAC, and Ghost Management Group (a tech company based in Irvine).
Kristie Bruce-Lane, an elected member on San Diego’s Water Board and a nonprofit founder, said that she has raised $200,000 to date. Her top ten donors so far are Frank Bongiovanni (owner of Seal Electric Inc.), New Cars Inc., Gechoff Orthodontics, Bruce Bartlett, Douglas Barnhart, Sudberry Properties, J & D Trucking, William Ostrem, and Mark Schmidt and Randy Williams (both executives with Liberty National Corporation). Bruce-Lane has also loaned her campaign more than $80,000 since declaring her candidacy in mid-2021.
June Yang Cutter, a business and employment attorney who ran against Maienschein in 2020, said that she has raised $109,100 thus far since announcing her campaign in January. Cutter declined to release the names of her donors, all of whom she said are individuals living in San Diego County.
All candidates for state Assembly and Senate offices must release campaign contribution numbers and donor information by March 31, per the California Secretary of State. However, some candidates, such as Cutter and Girand, may be reluctant to release donor information before the state-mandated deadline, as doing so could allow opponents to use this information for leverage, said Luna.
“The rule of thumb is to not show your cards, why give your opponent any leverage? I can see the strategy— if people don’t know who your donors are they can’t attack them or use it against you and scare the donors off.”
The decision by Cutter, Girand, or other primary candidates to not disclose donor information however has its risks, as voters might perceive these candidates as being less transparent or honest with their finances as compared to their opponents, Luna added.
“I don’t agree with this strategy, I think that the money that’s given should be transparent from the get-go…it’s the ‘what are you hiding’ issue,” he said.
Assembly District 77
In the newly redistricted AD 77, incumbent Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas) does not currently face any opponents after her Republican opponent Melanie Burkholder announced in January her withdrawal from the race.
Boerner Horvath has raised over $500,000 in contributions up to this point, according to campaign spokesperson Rob Charles. Her top donors are the California-Nevada Conference of Operating Engineers PAC Small Contributor Committee, Women’s Political Committee, Singleton Schreiber, LLP, Genetech USA, Los Angeles Police Protective League PAC, Peace Officers Research Association of California PAC., Adam Robinson (president of RPG formerly known as RAF Pacifica Group), Margaret R. Singleton, Amy S. Flicker, Ghost Management Group LLC, Pace of California School Employees Association Small Contributor Committee, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 569 PAC.
State Senate District 38
In the newly drawn 38th District, Blakespear, a Democrat, currently holds a slight fundraising advantage over Republican opponent Matt Gunderson. Blakespear has raised $380,000 since starting her campaign last May, while Gunderson, a political newcomer who announced his candidacy in December, has raised $357,000, per a campaign spokesperson.
Blakespear’s top 10 donors to date are the IUPAT Political Action Together Legislative Education Committee, United Domestic Workers of America Action Fund, Small Contributor Committee, IUOE Local 12 Small Contributor Committee, Fund Her PAC, Tricia Smith (Blakespear’s mother), Michael and Paula Verdu (founders of the North County Action Network and administrators of the Facebook group “Encinitas Politics”), Valerie McGinty, Daniel Smith and Christopher Pascale, an Encinitas real estate executive.
Gunderson’s top ten donors are the OC Automobile Dealers Associaton PAC, Jennifer Hoff (CEO of Pyramid Communications), Scott Gunderson, Mary Gunderson, Douglas E. Nock (vice president of Respicardia Inc.), Oremor Management and Investment Co., CA New Car Dealers Association PAC, Tuttle-Click Inc., James Brakke with Brakke-Schafnitz Insurance, and Nolet Spirits USA. Former U.S. House Speaker and 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista Gingrich have also contributed to Gunderson’s campaign, per documents Gunderson filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
In an email statement, Blakespear criticized Gunderson for taking money from the Gingriches.
“Our Republican opponent raised nearly as much as we did – in only half the time. How did he do it? By turning to national rightwing donors, like Newt and Callista Gingrich,” Blakespear’s statement read. “It’s now very clear the national Republican money machine will throw in everything they have to keep this seat Red like it’s been for over a hundred years.”
Stephen Puetz, a campaign spokesperson for Gunderson, dismissed Blakespear’s statement as “nutty conspiratorial scare tactics.”
“Callista is Matt’s childhood friend,” Puetz said. “They grew up in a tiny town together and she and her husband [Newt Gingrich] have donated $250 each to Matt’s campaign. State Senate races in CA do not attract national attention. Matt’s donors are overwhelmingly Californians who deeply care about our state, are extremely concerned about the direction it’s heading in and believe Matt is the best person to go to Sacramento and make a positive difference.”
In January, retired Orange County Fire Capt. Joe Kerr declared his candidacy for the 38th District. Kerr, a Democrat, was previously running for Orange County’s 5th Supervisorial District but recently dropped out of the race and transferred his funds over to the senate seat race.
Kerr told The Coast News that he has raised $120,000 at this point in time, although he did not have a list of specific donors available.
“We’re transitioning our efforts back to the senate race…we’re going to start aggressively fundraising now, I think we’ll catch up to our opponents within 60-90 days,” Kerr said. “Our top donors are a lot of labor unions, fire organizations, we’re receiving contributions from almost every firefighter association in the state of California…I think we’ll do well with the environmental groups and a lot of the big groups in Sacramento that weigh in as well.”
Kerr is the former president of the Orange County Fire Authority, a former vice president for the Orange County Professional Firefighters Association, and he currently serves on California’s Regional Water Quality Control Board for Region 8.