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The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington on July 31, 2011.
Super PACs are a big story this election season, as they spend vast sums on behalf of Republican and Democratic candidates. But there’s one super PAC that doesn’t target politicians from a particular party. Instead, this group targets incumbents. It’s considering backing challengers in three California races — two of them in the Inland Empire.
It’s called the Campaign for Primary Accountability. Spokesman Curtis Ellis says his super PAC backs challengers running against incumbents in both Democratic and Republican primaries in House districts dominated by one party.
"The folks in Washington are supposed to be representing the voters," Ellis said. "But once they get too comfortable in power, they end up representing the Washington insiders. And they’ve built this tremendously efficient system for keeping challengers at bay and keeping the voters out of the equation."
Ellis says his group picks races where its money can make a difference, where there’s a “credible” challenger and where voters are fed up. The PAC asks whether the politicians that are currently serving are popular, "or are people looking for someone new?"
The Campaign for Primary Accountability's founder and main donor is Leo Linbeck III, a conservative Texas construction magnate. As super PACS go, it’s not a high roller. According to Open Secrets, it’s raised about $3 million.
The Campaign has spent much more of its money targeting Republicans than Democrats. It has focused on a dozen races to date, with a 50-50 success rate.
But spokesman Ellis says even the losses were a victory of sorts. He says they saw incumbent congressmen who used to take reelection for granted "actually go before voters and ask them for their votes. And that’s going to make these people better representatives in the long run."
Ellis says California’s “top two” election system turns the November vote into a second primary. So the organization is considering three California House races where incumbents are running against challengers from their own party: Pete Stark, a Democrat in San Francisco’s east bay city of Fremont; Republican Congressman Gary Miller, who’s running in Riverside; and Democrat Joe Baca, running for re-election in San Bernardino.
Congressman Baca says the PAC "lost sight of what’s important for this country." Baca was first elected to Congress in 1999. He never faced an incumbent; he originally ran to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Congressman George Brown.
Baca says if the Campaign for Primary Accountability jumps into his race, he’ll have to raise $2 million — four times the amount he’d planned. He insists California’s experienced congressional delegation brings value to the state, because incumbents with seniority "bring back a lot of the bacon back to the district."
The other Inland Empire congressman, Gary Miller, declined to comment on the possibility of the Campaign spending money against him. Miller has raised more than a million dollars in PAC money from the real estate industry.
Political scientists like Kevin Esterling from UC Riverside aren’t sure whether an anti-incumbent Super PAC is a good thing or a bad thing. "On the one hand," he says, "that enhances democracy, because it’s good to have competitive elections." On the other hand, Esterling points out that incumbents have important institutional memory and legislative experience.
UC Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain dismisses the Campaign for Primary Accountability as “unfocused anger.” Besides, he asks, since California already has citizen-drawn districts and a top-two election, how much more shaking up does the state need?