Election 2014: Billionaire bucks buy personal touch in Congress race

Oxnard college student Paola Arriaga, right, and her mother, Leticia Ambriz Gonzalez registered to vote during a door-to-door campaign funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who wanted to help elect Democrats to Congress and the state legislature.
Oxnard college student Paola Arriaga, right, and her mother, Leticia Ambriz Gonzalez registered to vote during a door-to-door campaign funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who wanted to help elect Democrats to Congress and the state legislature.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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When Republicans tried to pick up a House seat in Ventura County from an incumbent freshman Democrat, conservative billionaires like the Koch Brothers and Charles T. Munger Jr. bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of mailers and TV ads in support of the challenger.

That media strategy was successful some places — three state Assembly Democrats targeted by Munger ended up losing.  But some strategists believe that million-dollar ad campaigns can also cancel each other out.

In the Ventura race, it appears a more personal approach — a voter registration campaign to sign up Latino working class voters in Oxnard  — may have been the better investment. Political strategists for winning candidate Julia Brownley believe those new voters made the difference in the race.

"We basically gained a net 1,500 to 2,000 votes from that effort, and that's almost the margin of victory in this race," said Ben Tulchin, pollster for  Brownley's campaign.  "If you look at what happened in a lot of the rest of the country where Democrats lost a lot of competitive seats, I mean, this one stood out as an outlier."

As a first-term member of Congress who squeaked into office in 2012 when the redrawn 26th Congressional District gained Democratic voters, Brownley became a national Republican target for conservatives intent on boosting House Republicans. Navy veteran Jeff Gorell, a state assemblyman, made an attractive challenger.

Billionaire environmentalist Thomas Steyer spent about $1 million via his NextGen Climate Action political action committee funding a months-long campaign to register California voters. It had a strong focus on Ventura County, said NextGen spokeswoman Suzanne Henkels.

"We invested more than $1 million into two, well-established voter registration, education and turnout committees: CALVoter and California Voter Project," Henkels said.

Funding the voter registration efforts in Ventura County, Henkels said, "was part of our overall commitment in California to ensure that voters who are impacted most by climate change and air pollution are turning out to vote, and electing candidates who lead on these issues."

Henkels did not say what portion of the $1 million was spent in the county and Steyer declined to be interviewed about his campaign. 

But the Ventura County Star reported that Steyer had announced his organization was putting $650,000 into Ventura voter outreach.

Because those committees exist to support partisan voter registration drives rather than specific candidates, reports on the money they spent do not show up in Federal Election Commission totals of money spent for or against Brownley or Gorell.

Spending on voter registration drives has been a common activity for political parties and labor unions, but it's a growing activity by independent political action committees, also known as super PACS.

New York Times campaign finance reporter Derek Wills analyzed spending by the 40 largest super PACS in the 2014 election cycle, including Steyer's $77 million NextGen Climate Action committee. Wills found that such groups had expanded their spending far beyond providing direct support to federal candidates: 40 of the largest super PACS spent a combined $287 million during the 2014 elections, with $49 million of that on direct independent expenditures in federal races.

Months before the election, Tulchin's projections told him that the race would be tied, with nearly equal numbers of  Democrats and Republicans expected to vote. Brownley's only hope to win the election was to change the composition of the voting population, he said.
The voter registration drive added 5,454 new Democrats in Oxnard after the June primary election, an increase of 13.1 percent.  That's a remarkable uptick given that the overall increase in all registered voters in Ventura County was just 1.3 percent.

Most of those Oxnard Democrats were new voters, but some also came from the ranks of the Republican and other parties, according to state Secretary of State numbers. Republican registrations in Oxnard fell by 4.2 percent.

An analysis of voter files by the nonpartisan group Political Data Inc., show that 968  newly registered Oxnard Democrats cast ballots in the November election, as did more than 300 voters who registered as nonpartisan voters.

Tulchin said many of those nonpartisan voters were likely to have voted with the Democrats for Brownley because Oxnard is a Democratic stronghold in the Ventura County.

Part of the winning formula was to register the new voters as permanent mail-in voters because their voting activity is more transparent to campaigns, Tulchin said.

"From a campaign's perspective, we know who those newly registered voters are," Tulchin said. "We can flag them on the voter file, target them specifically, and we  have 30 days to call them, email them, mail them information, knock on their doors and get them to vote for the Democrat and turn their ballot in."

In an election where a low turnout was expected to put Democratic incumbents at peril, more Democrats than expected cast ballots, Tulchin said.

Brownley won by 2.6 percent, just 4,523 votes.

The American Future Fund, an Iowa-based nonprofit organization that does not disclose its donors but which has ties to the Koch brothers, spent $809,000 on ads attacking Brownley. The Koch brothers are owners of Koch Industries, the nation's second-largest privately owned company. It owns oil refineries, oil-services companies and one of the nation’s biggest fertilizer manufacturers. The Koch brothers have funded many conservative campaigns.

Billionaire Charles T. Munger Jr. gave $50,000 toward about $181,000 that the Victory California committee spent in mid-October supporting Gorell. That money went toward research, postage, consulting and robocalls. Munger spent at least $11 million in political donations this campaign year.

Billionaires were not the only big spenders in the race. Two Democratic committees put in more than $2 million to back Brownley and oppose Gorell.

Republican party committees spent nearly $434,000 for Gorell and against Brownley. The political arm of Planned Parenthood spent about $283,000 on a combination of field operations and media in support of Brownley.

Mobilizing voters through a registration drive is expensive and more difficult to execute, but more effective than the giant media buys that independent campaigns generally favor, said Eric McGhee, who researches elections and voter behavior at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

"It turns out that they get more turnout for a given dollar than a lot of these other methods like robocalls and so forth," said McGhee.  "Advertising is particularly good at convincing voters which way to vote, it's not as great at getting people to turn out to vote."

One of the people who might not have turned out is college freshman Paola Arriaga. She lives in a tidy mobile home park surrounded by agricultural fields and a freeway.

A Democratic canvasser knocked on her door in September and spent a half-hour chatting about why she should support Democrats like Brownley, a first-term incumbent who was in a very tight race to keep her seat representing the 26th Congressional District. The canvasser was also pitching for Democrat Jacqui Irwin's campaign in the overlapping 44th Assembly District.

"I drive by millions of those signs all the time, 'Vote for Julia', 'Vote for Jacqui.' But actually getting somebody to take my time and tell me what they are actually doing was definitely way more better than just seeing signs," Arriaga said. "I would have ignored those signs, but you can't really ignore someone at your door."

Arriaga registered to vote as a Democrat. About a week later, another canvasser visited and updated her mother's Democratic registration from a prior home address. Several weeks before the election, they sat together at their kitchen table and filled in their mail-in ballots for Brownley.

The money NextGen spent on registering Democrats in the 26th Congressional District helped other Democrats running in state contests within the district, including Irwin, who was running to succeed Gorell in the Assembly. She also won her election.

"I've always been told, 'One (vote) makes a difference,' so that's why I took part in this because my voice was saying to vote," Arriaga said. "So for it to be heard, well, I'm astonished, I'm glad, you know, I'm glad that my vote makes a difference."

McGhee said the personal touch, like the campaign that focused on Paola Arriaga and her Oxnard neighbors, can make a winning difference.

"Mobilization is all about finding people who are already your supporters and getting them to the polls," he said. "The more personal the contact is, the more conversation you  have with the voter, the more you connect with them as a person, the more effective the mobilization strategy is."

"I think you can make a case that campaigns ought to be doing more of the very classic sort of 19th Century knocking on doors mobilization," McGhee said. "I think people find it a little bit intrusive to have people come to their door, but they respond to it better. So you sort of go with what works."