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Tight races and big money are coming to Central Coast elections

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A local political wonk may have made the understatement of the year: “It’s gonna be a money election,” he said. “It’s coming down to calculating the money.”

If money and politics were merely in bed before, in today’s climate their unholy union has shot out a litter of suckling trust fund babies.

- BIG SPENDERS:  Money raised so far, according to the Federal Elections Commission: -  - • Lois Capps (D): $436,925 -  - • Abel Maldonado (R): $547,289 -  - • Tom Watson (R): $5,633 -
  • BIG SPENDERS: Money raised so far, according to the Federal Elections Commission:
    • Lois Capps (D): $436,925
    • Abel Maldonado (R): $547,289
    • Tom Watson (R): $5,633

According to Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics based in Washington, D.C., the coming campaign season will be unmatched by anything we’ve yet seen.

“There are so many groups popping up—on both the left and the right—that are planning on spending staggering sums this election cycle,” he said.

The Center for Responsive Politics, commonly known as OpenSecrets.org, tasks itself with using public documents to shed light on where and from whom campaign money comes from. But these days, Beckel said, “It’s keeping us more busy than ever.”

Welcome to the world of post-Citizens United, where PACs are sooo 2010. The term to learn for 2012 is super PAC, a political action committee unbound from traditional fundraising limits by the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission. That decision, commonly referred to as Citizens United, struck down previous rules that prohibited corporations from throwing money into campaigns.

Under the new rules, at least on the federal level, corporations of both the for-profit and nonprofit variety are free to pump money into political advertisements. It’s opened the door to the so-called super PAC, kind of a political Swiss bank account. Karl Rove has one. Even TV satirist Stephen Colbert has the Colbert Super PAC, which sports the mantra, “Making a better tomorrow, tomorrow.”

A traditional PAC is a collection of individuals who pool their resources to promote a candidate or denounce another. Unlike super PACs, they were bound by funding limitations.

A super PAC has no limit. More so, these new electoral beasts allow big money makers like Rove, Hayley Barbour, and large labor unions to further disguise the money behind the candidate. With the newfound ability to use corporate money, the individual contributors can be virtually wiped away. Though there are rules banning PACs from coordinating directly with candidates, Beckel said, there’s also a lot of gray area.

“This isn’t your average Joe. … These are very skilled political operatives,” he said. “They are trying to get the most bang for their buck.”

As a sign of things to come, about $305 million went into political messages in the 2010 election, which was about the same spent in 2008 when there were presidential candidates on the ballot.

“This is going to be taken to all new heights this year when control of Congress and the White House is at stake,” Beckel said.

In fact, Santa Barbara Democratic Congresswoman Lois Capps already felt the business end this year when she was one of several Democrats targeted by Rove’s super PAC, American Crossroads.

Such recent changes could have a very real impact on the Central Coast’s representation, perhaps opening the field enough to break local tradition to allow a Republican in Washington, D.C., and a Democrat in Sacramento.

Once-safe districts for candidates have been scrambled and rearranged. In August, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission unveiled the new political boundaries at both the state and congressional levels.

Lois Capps’ district, for example, was once an almost laughably gerrymandered sliver of safe coastal territory. The new district, however, spreads from the coast to include all of San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County, and some of Ventura County.

In 2010, Capps enjoyed a 20-point victory over challenger Tom Watson. However, the new district is broken into a voting population that’s 39 percent Democratic, 36 percent Republican, and 20 percent decline to state.

In other words, the Central Coast is now a swing district.

“I think this is probably the first serious challenge,” said John Peschong, chairman of the SLO County Republican Party.

Add in the easy campaign money, and the Central Coast’s congressional district could actually become an interesting race, with national special interests jockeying for the seat with their dollars.

“Californians will be playing a very significant role in both terms of giving and receiving money,” Beckel said.

Capps has so far out-fundraised Abel Maldonado, who could end up being the Republican front-runner if for no other reason than his name recognition as a former state assemblyman, senator, and a brief stint as Schwarzenegger’s lieutenant governor.

According to Federal Election Commission records compiled by OpenSecrets.org, Capps has so far raised $436,925 in the 2011-12 funding cycle. PAC contributions accounted for $129,500 of her campaign piggy bank, with another $305,748 coming from individual contributions. Maldonado, on the other hand, only took in $1,500 from PACs and $295,689 from individuals. The majority of his funding—$250,100—came from himself.

But it’s just the beginning. The figures currently available only record donations through July 30. According to FEC guidelines, candidates have until Oct. 15 to file contributions received through Sept. 30.

And Maldonado may have a tough run ahead of him. The Central Coast Republican has swayed in reputation among his party members from local dreamboat Republican to level-headed moderate to tax-increasing sellout. In fact, in a deal Maldonado reached with California’s Democratic Senate majority, he exchanged a vote on the state budget for two ballot initiatives, including one that opened the state’s primaries.

The move may have further leveled the playing field.

Pat Harris, chair of the SLO County Democratic Party, said because of redistricting and open primaries, “the contests are going to be truly competitive for the first time in many years.”

Watson has thrown his hat into the race again, along with Maldonado, and fellow Republican Christopher Mitchum. Capps’ only Democratic opponent to date is David Cruz Thayne.

On a smaller scale, the local Senate seat in Sacramento has also undergone a facelift. Redistricting has roped in more voters to the north from Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. Republican Sam Blakeslee, who won the Senate seat in a special election to replace Maldonado, enjoyed a friendlier district last time around. In 2012, however, Republicans are outweighed by Democrats in the district by 16 percentage points, according to Redistricting Partners.

Though Blakeslee hasn’t officially declared, he’s expected to join the race against Democrat Bill Monning from Carmel, who’s currently the 27th District Assemblyman. Monning’s already accustomed to voters in the northern part of the district, but told New Times, “San Luis Obispo County is where I’ve been spending time getting to know people.”

Soon, the money will really begin pouring in and candidates will start to campaign heavily—all for seats that may be more open this year than any time in recent history.

News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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