California might be solid blue in presidential elections, and some prominent Republicans love to roast the Golden State, but when it comes to super political action committees, the state's political giving is quite even-handed.
Major conservative super PACs have raised $12.8 million this election season, while liberal ones drew just a bit more, at $13.9 million, according to an analysis by campaign finance tracker MapLight.org. Still, California's breakdown is decidedly more liberal than the nation as a whole, where conservative super PACs have out-raised liberal groups 3 to 1.
Four states, including California, and the District of Columbia made up two-thirds of all super PAC philanthropy from the beginning of 2011 to June of this year, according to MapLight. The other states – Texas, New York and Nevada – lean conservative, while Washington, D.C., super PAC giving is almost entirely liberal.
In California, "the fact that it’s an even split would make sense, because the predisposition of voters here may be on the more liberal side, but conservative organizations are often better at organizing super PAC money," said Loyola Law School professor and campaign finance scholar Jessica Levinson. "I don’t think it reflects the population. It reflects those who have and want to spend a lot of money on campaigns."
The super PAC mining the most California gold is Priorities USA Action, which backs President Barack Obama's re-election, with $9 million. The top donors include Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Mark Jacobs and DreamWorks Animation executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, who each gave $2 million. Actor Morgan Freeman, comedian Bill Maher and Rancho Cucamonga businessman Kareem Ahmed each gave $1 million.
The other main liberal super PACs are American Bridge 21st Century, which tries to catch GOP gaffes; House Majority PAC, working to elect Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives; and Majority PAC, the U.S. Senate counterpart, which picked up a $200,000 contribution from Sen. Dianne Feinstein's husband, Richard Blum, last month.
John and Marcia Goldman – Bay Area philanthropist descendants of the prominent Haas family and Levi Strauss fortune – gave $200,000 to Priorities USA Action and $100,000 to both the House Majority PAC and Majority PAC, according to recent campaign filings.
Ironically, the Goldmans would prefer to "abolish" super PACs, said Justin Buell, who coordinates their political giving and serves on the Democratic National Committee’s National Finance Council.
"They dislike super PACs because it allows a disproportionate voice to a small group of people in the political process," Buell said. "But they feel that the onslaught by the Republicans and the amount of money that’s coming in from only a handful of people is so much that, while Democrats don’t want to play this game, we at least have to get our hands on the steering wheel to turn the car around."
On the opposite side of the road, Restore Our Future, which backs Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, pulled in a little more than $6 million from California, and the Karl Rove-affiliated American Crossroads took in $4.4 million.
Top donors include former Univision CEO Jerry Perenchio, who gave $2 million to American Crossroads and half a million dollars to Restore Our Future, and casino owner Irving Moskowitz, who gave $1 million to American Crossroads. The Mercury Trust, which gave a combined $1 million to the two groups, was identified by the Center for Responsive Politics as "an affiliate of Fox Paine and Company, a California-based buyout firm, run by Saul Fox."
PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, a member of Facebook's board of directors, gave $2 million to the Tea Party-aligned Club for Growth Action in the last two months. Thiel earlier bankrolled the super PAC backing Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
Despite the bounty from the Golden State's conservatives, some Republicans, including Romney and Sarah Palin, recently have taken jabs at California as an example of the fiscal malaise they want the country to avoid.
California became a "punch line" of late-night TV comedians and "it only stands to reason that politicians are going to follow the trend," said Sacramento-based Republican consultant Rob Stutzman.
"We have have become a cartoon out here for everything that’s wrong with government and government debt," he said.
But California-bashing won't turn off the state's GOP donors, Stutzman said – because they agree.
"Californians are pissed off about California," he said.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.