As California heads into its first primary election under new district lines and open primary rules, Super PACs and other independent expenditure groups (IEs) are playing hardball in down-ballot, state races.
Because Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and other wealthy donors who've already given the maximum contribution to the candidate directly, they could end up defining the 2012 campaign, from the presidency on down.
In California, Super PACs are particularly active in Congressional campaigns; that's not surprising because control of the House may be at stake.
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The Golden State, with 53 newly drawn districts (nine of them open seats), could hold the key to the House majority.
Because contested California races cost a bundle, Super PACs will be crucial to the strategy of both major parties, and to interest groups with high stakes in the outcome of the state's elections.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the GOP's "Congressional Leadership Fund," bolstered by a $5 million contribution from former Newt Gingrich supporter Sheldon Adelson, "has created a state-specific drive called the California Leadership Fund."
"Majority PAC," a Democratic Super PAC raising money for key Congressional races, has established "Project California 2012."
According to the Riverside Press-Enterprise, San Bernardino County's CD 31 has "busted through the $1 million mark in Super PAC spending." An infusion of cash by the National Association of Realtors in support of GOP Rep. Gary Miller -- more than $800,000 so far -- "helped keep the 31st atop all other House districts in Super PAC spending." Miller has a strong record of support for realtors' issues.
The other Republican in the primary, State Sen. Bob Dutton, is backed by "Inland Empire Taxpayers for Jobs," whose organizers include former Assembly GOP leader Bill Leonard. According to the LA Times, the group has contributed about $50,000 to Dutton's campaign.
Another Super PAC, "Restoring Our Community," raked in contributions from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the California Credit League PAC. According to the Press-Enterprise, it has spent more than $150,000 to support Democrat Pete Aguilar in the race.
Super PACs and IEs are targeting beyond Congressional seats. A newly formed Super Pac called "icPurple" (for blending Red and Blue) supports independent candidates nationwide.
In California, the group has endorsed three No Party Preference (NPP) candidates in the June Primary: Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks and Chad Condit for Congressional seats, and Chad Walsh for a Silicon Valley Assembly seat. The group also supports Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher for San Diego Mayor.
"Spirit of Democracy", funded primarily by Charles T. Munger, Jr., a moderate Republican who bankrolled California's redistricting reform, is backing GOP Assemblywoman Beth Gaines for re-election in AD 6. Her GOP challenger, Andy Pugno, countered with a radio ad warning "Don't let a liberal Bay Area billionaire buy the election for Beth Gaines."
In another example of the ever-increasing impact of IEs on California's initiative process, a MapLight analysis of campaign contribution data from the California Secretary of State showed "…committees opposing California's Proposition 29 (cigarette tax) have raised nearly $40 million in contributions, more than any independent expenditure committee at the federal level except the Pro-Romney 'Restore Our Future' Super PAC."
Nationally, campaigns already find it difficult to stop Super PACs from wandering off the candidate's message or committing strategic blunders. By law, Super PACs can't have their messages approved by the candidates' campaigns.
Have we reached the point where the candidate is almost incidental to the message of his/her campaign?
Sen. John McCain has warned: "I guarantee there will be a scandal, there is too much money washing around politics, and it's making the campaigns irrelevant."
In 2012, California will once again be a testing ground for America's future.
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the political analyst for NBC4.