WASHINGTON -- The race for a newly drawn congressional district in California's Inland Empire is shaping up as a clash of titans. It's not the candidates -- Republican Rep. Gary Miller and his leading Democratic opponent Pete Aguilar -- who are making a splash at the moment, but rather two powerful interest groups, the National Association of Realtors and the California & Nevada Credit Union League, who are investing big money to support candidates that have long backed their interests.
The contest in California's 31st District has seen the most spending from independent groups of any non-special election House race in the 2012 election cycle. The realtors and the credit union league have pumped more than $1.4 million into the race as they seek to elect candidates to be their champion in Congress.
The spending by these two industry groups marks another step in the evolution of elections in the wake of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC). That decision -- and a subsequent lower court ruling -- freed corporations, individuals and unions to spend freely on independent efforts in elections. As evident in the Inland Empire primary race, interest groups and industry leaders are becoming bigger players in elections than the candidates.
Miller's reelection bid, put in danger by both the new map and a new nonpartisan primary system instituted by voter referendum, is backed by $1.2 million in spending by the National Association of Realtors. The congressman had only spent $765,000 on his campaign as of May 16.
Most of the money spent by the Realtors, nearly $900,000, has come from a traditional PAC, which accepts only limited donations. That has been supplemented with more than $300,000 in corporate funds from the group's super PAC.
"We have funding coming in both accounts and we're using it as money comes in," said National Association of Realtors political director Scott Reiter.
On the other side, the California & Nevada Credit Union League created its own super PAC, named Restoring Our Community, to support Aguilar. The super PAC, which is funded by a $250,000 contribution from the credit union league, has already spent $155,000 to support Aguilar, who, as of May 16, had spent $231,000 on his own campaign.
"This is the unfortunate reality of Citizens United," said California Common Cause policy advocate Phillip Ung. "It's opened up this new era of spending where we have interest groups going after each other and the candidates are being used as proxies."
This unprecedented spending has raised concerns by many that congressmen, when elected, will be more responsive to the industries that helped them win election than to the residents of their district. Both the credit union league and realtors agree that concerns about their spending are overblown.
"We have engaged in state races on what are called independent expenditures," Bob Arnuld, senior vice president of government relations for the California & Nevada Credit Union League, said. "The law now allows us to do this on the federal level."
"What people don't understand is we don't go pick a congressman and everything they do goes to doing what we want to do," Reiter said.
Neither of the candidates are unknown quantities to the industries supporting them. In fact, both hail from the industry of their respective super PAC backers.
Miller is himself a developer, owning millions of dollars of land and residential properties in his congressional district.
"He's from the development industry, that's his background," said Reiter. "He's one of the biggest supporters of development in Congress."
In the role of realtor champion, Miller has taken the lead in Congress to support his industry as the sponsor of a resolution declaring support for the mortgage interest deduction. Deficit hawks and blue ribbon commissions have targeted the once-sacrosanct tax break for homeowners as part of an effort to clear the tax code of all breaks and subsidies. Nearly 200 congressmen, Republicans and Democrats, have joined Miller's resolution.
The Democrat Aguilar, currently the mayor of Redlands, previously worked as the head of government relations for Arrowhead Credit Union and is well-known within the credit union industry in California.
"He has a strong background working on community relations side of the credit union industry," said Arnuld. "He understands exactly how credit unions can engage and spur economic development in that area."
The early investment in the primary race by the two industries is happening not just because of the new freedom to spend brought about by the Citizens United ruling, but also because of a new system of non-partisan elections in California, according to Ung.
"We're seeing more money being poured into primary races than ever before," he said. "This is a unique year."
The new system allows voters to vote for all candidates on one ballot in the primary election with the top two finishers moving on to the general election. This allows for the possibility that the two general election candidates could hail from the same party or from neither.
The California Credit Union League and the Realtors want to make sure that their favored candidate, the one who will represent their industry in Washington, makes it onto the general election ballot.
In that effort, the groups are taking different tacks.
The Realtors, long-time players in congressional races, take a more traditional approach by spending their money on ads on cable television and radio and filling the mailboxes of district residents with direct mail touting Miller's record.
The credit union super PAC, however, has invested in grassroots door-knocking and phone-banking efforts to spread the word about Aguilar house-by-house.
"We're engaging local neighbors from the Inland Empire to go out and talk to their neighbors about Pete's strength as a candidate," Arnuld said. "We are educating voters in the 31st District at their doorsteps."
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