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Millions pour into the 24th District Congressional race while candidates take aim at each other's donations

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It takes a lot to win a congressional election: A message that appeals to voters, a dedicated staff of paid operatives and volunteers, a well-organized ground game, and lots of money.

The race for California's 24th Congressional District, which includes San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, is no exception. The race, a rematch between the same candidates who battled for the seat in 2016, is once again proving to be an expensive affair. With a little more than a month left until voters hit the ballot boxes across the district, individual supporters as well as political action committees have dumped nearly $3 million into the race, according to reports from the Federal Election Commission.

But while campaign donations can help fund the costly venture of running for office, that same money can also be used as a cudgel for candidates to attack each other. While the candidates in the 24th District race continue to rake in money for their campaigns, each has called on the other to return donations from elected officials embroiled in scandal.

In August, incumbent Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Santa Barbara) called out his opponent, Justin Fareed, on Twitter for taking money from U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine). Hunter was recently indicted on corruption charges for allegedly using campaign money to pay for personal expenses. Campaign finance records show that in his 2016 campaign, Fareed received $2,500 from Hunter's leadership PAC (political action committee), Peace Through Strength, and another $4,000 from the congressman's campaign committee.

In his Tweet, Carbajal called on Fareed to donate that money to the Wounded Warriors project.

"My opponent has a history of accepting campaign contributions from shady sources," Carbajal wrote. "Taking money from Rep. Duncan Hunter, who covered up his personal shopping and travel expenses by claiming the [money] went to help our vets, is no exception."

Austin Stukins, Fareed's campaign manager, pushed back on the criticism, noting that the donations connected to Hunter were two years old and from the previous election.

"Justin has taken no money from Congressman Hunter during his current run for Congress," he said. "There are serious allegations against Congressman Hunter that require a full and thorough vetting of the facts."

Fareed's campaign was quick to point out that Carbajal took money from a PAC with connections to U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Panorama City). In May, Cárdenas told colleagues that he was the subject of lawsuit by a woman who claimed that he drugged and sexually assaulted her in 2007 when she was 16 years old. Campaign finance records show that Carbajal received $10,000 in 2015 and another $10,000 in the current election from CHC BOLD PAC. Cárdenas, who has denied the lawsuit's allegations, currently serves as chair of BOLD PAC, which is the fundraising arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Carbajal is also listed as a BOLD member on the PAC's website.

A website associated with Fareed's campaign questioned why Carbajal was "silent" on the accusations against Cardenas, claiming that he "owes quite a bit" to the congressman.

"Mr. Carbajal should return the contributions ... directed to assist his campaign by Mr. Cárdenas, through BOLD PAC, and he should call on Mr. Cárdenas to step down," Stukins wrote in an email response to questions from New Times.

Carbajal spokesperson Tess Whittlesey drew a distinction between that committee and Peace Through Strength.

"BOLD PAC's mission is to bring more diverse representation to Congress and the group's leadership is controlled by a board, which collectively makes decisions on what candidates to support," she wrote in an email to New Times. "The organization is different than an individual leadership PAC like Rep. Hunter's, which only advances the interests of one individual."

Thus far, Carbajal has amassed the larger of the two campaign war chests. According to the Federal Election Commission, Carbajal, who is running for a second term in Congress, has raised more than $2.2 million to date in the 2018 election. During his first run in 2016, Carbajal raised more than $3.1 million.

Fareed has raised a total of $758,223 so far for the 2018 cycle. Fareed, who ran for the seat twice before, raised $2.3 million during the 2016 election, which he lost to Carbajal.

Both Carbajal's and Fareed's campaigns accepted money from individual supporters, and PACs, which privately raise money to influence elections on behalf of industries, companies, and political causes. Between the two candidates, various PACs have donated $678,834 so far. In the 2016 election, combined PAC donations to both candidates totaled more than $855,000

So far, Carbajal has received the lion's share of PAC donations, taking in $625,334 from more than 400 committees representing unions, Planned Parenthood, and the telecommunications, aerospace, and defense industries, among others. Fareed received far less PAC money, totaling just $53,500 from 30 committees as of Sept. 26. Notable PACs donating to Fareed's campaign include the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriffs' Association PAC, and the SLO County Cattlemen's PAC.

The next deadline to file campaign finance disclosure information will occur on Oct. 15. Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com.

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