Millions of dollars in campaign cash are pouring into California this year, but the ubiquitous television ads they’re funding aren’t for the presidential race; the hot ticket is the House of Representatives.
While Democrats dominate offices statewide, and President Barack Obama leads Republican challenger Mitt Romney by 20 points in state polls, at least eight California House districts are in play – more than any time in decades.
While most observers predict that Republicans will keep their House majority, the party and its allies aren’t taking any chances.
Democrats, meanwhile, see opportunity.
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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports business-friendly candidates, has spent at least $3 million on television advertising to support eight Republican House candidates in the Golden State, its largest investment this year.
“It’s our number one priority in the House,” said Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s political director.
The ads are part of a $50 million advertising effort that the influential business lobby is poised to spend nationwide to help secure the Republican political stronghold in the House. It tops the $33 million it spent in 2010, when Republicans swept into the majority.
“They’ve become the dominant player in congressional elections,” Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, said of the Chamber of Commerce. “It shouldn’t be surprising to find them going whole hog in California.”
The chamber-funded ads running in California feature a small business owner, Darlene Miller, who says in the script that she can’t hire more workers because of uncertainty over taxes and Obama’s health care law.
“You need to know who you’re voting for,” says Miller, whose company is actually in Minnesota.
Ironically, Miller is an Obama appointee to the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. She was given a coveted seat next to first lady Michelle Obama when the president addressed a joint session of Congress last year on jobs.
The chamber’s spending is not coordinated with any individual campaigns, but it could help a number of candidates in competitive races, including incumbent Republican Reps. Dan Lungren, Jeff Denham, Brian Bilbray and Mary Bono Mack.
It’s also aiding Republican challengers, including Ricky Gill, who is trying to defeat Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney, and Abel Maldonado, a former lieutenant governor who’s running against Democratic Rep. Lois Capps.
In California’s 7th Congressional District, where Lungren is locked in a tight rematch with physician Ami Bera, the chamber’s ad accuses Bera of supporting $716 billion in cuts to Medicare that it claims would take away benefits for 2 million California seniors.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Obama’s health care law reduces payments to hospitals and insurers under Medicare Advantage, a private alternative to traditional Medicare. Other political watchdog websites have noted that the cuts are not aimed at services to beneficiaries. But some experts, including Medicare’s chief actuary, Richard Foster, have questioned whether the law’s reductions in provider payments would limit the availability of services for beneficiaries over the long term.
About a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries nationwide, and 36 percent in California, are enrolled in Medicare Advantage.
“The Republican plan doesn’t take any money away from current Medicare recipients,” said Jeff Wyly, a Lungren spokesman, referring to a budget plan offered by Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. “Obamacare, which Bera supports, takes that money out.”
Romney and Ryan have repeated the Medicare claim. But independent fact-checking organizations have described it as misleading or false.
“Medicare’s money isn’t being taken away,” according to FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Democrats counter that Lungren and other Republicans voted for the same cuts in a budget crafted by Ryan, though Republicans respond that the savings would help support Medicare’s finances.
“Apples and oranges,” said the chamber’s Engstrom of the difference between the Obama and Ryan Medicare reductions.
Only one California House seat has changed parties in more than a decade, but redistricting and retirements have created competitive races.
The political website RealClearPolitics rates five California races as tossups. Nationwide, it identifies 26 tossups. Democrats would have to win 25 to regain control of the House.
The chamber does endorse Democrats. Thursday, it backed Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno, Calif., Democrat who voted against Obama’s health care law. Many fiscally conservative Democrats lost re-election in 2010, but Costa won, though barely. He’s expected to have an easier time this year in a redrawn district.
“We’re not a litmus-test organization,” Engstrom said.
Still, about 80 percent of the group’s campaign spending supports Republicans.
“The chamber’s been out in the forefront of this more aggressive effort to give money,” said Binder, the George Washington University professor.
Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington organization that promotes disclosure of campaign donors, said that with California off the map in the presidential election, the chamber’s advertising strategy makes sense.
“House races are less scrutinized,” she said. “It’s easier for them to dump a lot of money and make a lot of impact.”
Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United campaign finance case, there’s no limit on what corporations and unions can give to support or oppose particular candidates, as long as they don’t coordinate with campaigns. But donors can remain anonymous.
The chamber identifies itself as responsible for their ads’ content, but disclosure advocates say that doesn’t tell voters who’s really behind them.
“Voters should know: Who’s pulling the levers of power and has chits to cash in?” Kiely said. “It puts average voters at a disadvantage.”
Tony Pugh of the Washington Bureau contributed to this article.