A handful of Southern California general election candidates have amassed more than a million dollars in pursuit of a seat in the state Legislature. Call them the million-dollar club.
For the most part, those candidates -- like Senate President pro tem Kevin de Leon -- are power brokers who face no or poorly-funded opposition.
However, a number of competitive races have risen above the million-dollar mark. Some of the costlier campaigns in Southern California are in pivotal races that could decide if the Democratic party maintains its two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly or Senate, which they first secured in the 2012 election.
In all, campaign donations to the general election contenders top a combined $1 million in 16 of California's 100 Assembly and Senate contests, according to data compiled by the Institute for Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.
Expensive, competitive contests to hold the supermajority
One such contest, with more than $1.7 million raised, is in the Fullerton area where Democrat Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva faces Republican Young Kim, a former aide to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton). Quirk-Silva, running for her second term, raised $933,000 to Young's $803,000. The district has near-equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, but independent voters and Asian-American voters (who register as independents in greater numbers) are likely to be the deciding factor in the race.
The race is attracting so much money because the outcome determines whether Democrats have a supermajority in the Assembly, which gives them absolute control, or whether Republicans can muster enough votes to gain leverage over budget and other key votes.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan group that advocates for changes in campaign finance laws, says voters in those swing districts will be inundated with ads and in-person campaigning.
"They should be looking more deeply at who really is funding those ads," she said, "and do their research as to which of those candidates most closely aligns with the issues voters care about."
Another of those million-dollar races to keep the Democratic supermajority is in the Torrance district where Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi is running for a second term against Republican David Hadley, a Manhattan Beach businessman. Hadley finished one percentage point ahead of Muratsuchi in the two-candidate primary. They have raised a combined $1.3 million for their race to represent the 66th Assembly District.
The richest competitive race in Southern California pits Santa Monica school board member Ben Allen against civil rights attorney Sandra Fluke in pursuit of the 26th Senate District seat. He raised $666,000 to her $628,000.
Both are Democrats running in the Westside/South Bay area to succeed Sen. Ted Lieu, who is running for Congress. Much of the combined $3.4 million raised in that race was spent in the open primary as ten candidates sought to capture voters' attention. These were particularly expensive campaigns because the voters are also getting large amounts of campaign mail for the competitive races for Congress and the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.
Primary spending sends some races over $1 million
Several other Southern California races topped the million-dollar mark because the primary races were so competitive. In Yorba Linda, Republican Ling-Ling Chang collected nearly $508,000 to defeat others from her party who collectively raised more than $707,000 in the 55th Assembly District. She now faces Democrat Gregg Fritchle, who has raised less than $3,000.
The Inglewood-area 62nd Assembly District saw Democrat Autumn Burke raise more than a half-million dollars to get into the top two runoff to face Republican Ted Grose, who has about $24,000 in his campaign chest. Other primary candidate collected nearly $600,000.
West San Fernando Valley voters are the targets of another million-dollar race, a repeat of last year's special election in which Democrat Matt Dababneh narrowly beat author Susan Shelley, a Republican. Dababneh, now running as the incumbent, has raised more than $538,000, about three times what Shelley raised. That race is coming in at about $1.2 million when primary candidates' spending is taken into account.
Incumbent power brokers pull in big bucks
A number of Southern California's richest campaign chests were amassed by candidates who don't really need the money because they are favored to win their races.
Take the 24th Senate District in East L.A., for example. It's a lopsided race where Senate President pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) has raised more than $1.8 million and is facing fellow Democrat and challenger Peter Choi, a nonprofit CEO who has raised about $21,000.
So what do powerful legislators like de Leon do with the mega-bucks they raise when they are in non-competitive races? Pretty much whatever they want.
Members of the Senate and Legislature who have a solid hold on their seats are expected to help fund others' political campaigns, said Feng. Those donations can help them win influential committee assignments, which, in turn, can bring them more donations from the industries they regulate.
Incumbents can also use their excess campaign money to exert control over other candidates' votes, Feng said. They might threaten to fund opposition when they come up for re-election, she said.
De Leon has raised the most among all candidates for legislative seats this election cycle. He spent about $700,000 of his campaign chest this year, about half that amount on his campaign consultant.
He's given more than $47,000 to political committees, including those for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, controller candidate Betty Yee and Sen. Alex Padilla's secretary of state campaign.
De Leon used another $255,000 to pay legal costs. His name was mentioned repeatedly in documents that surfaced publicly describing the FBI's case against now-suspended Sen. Ron Calderon, however the FBI has said De Leon is not under investigation. De Leon sent $5,000 to the FBI, returning contributions he received from an undercover informant in the investigation of Sen. Ron Calderon.
Other Southern California legislative incumbents whose campaigns rasied more than $1 million are Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina), Sebastian Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), and Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D- Burbank.) Their opponents raised very little, from zero to about $56,000.
Bob Hertzberg is the only non-incumbent running for a Southern California legislative seat to crack the million dollar club. The two-time former speaker of the Assembly is running for the Senate. He raised $1.18 million and is plowing most of it into his own campaign. His biggest donors are public and private sector unions, and the real estate and insurance industries. He spent $117,000 on donations to Democratic party and individual candidate committees. Hertzberg's opponent raised less than $1,000.
Data: California's most expensive races
Source: California Secretary of State campaign finance data compiled by the National Institute on Money in State Politics