WASHINGTON -- Bill Bloomfield, the Republican-turned-independent real estate titan, nearly toppled Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) in 2012 after putting more than $7 million of his own money behind his bid. Neither man is on the ballot this year, but that hasn't stopped Bloomfield from pouring another fortune into an electoral race -- this one for the California state Senate.
He has already spent $1.3 million in independent expenditures to boost the candidacy of Ben Allen, a Santa Monica-Malibu school board member and former corporate lawyer with Bryan Cave, who is running in the 26th Senate District against lawyer and activist Sandra Fluke. Bloomfield's spending, most of which has come in the last month, is more than the $1.2 million raised for each candidate's campaign.
As the most populous and wealthiest state in the union, California is no stranger to big money spending in elections. In 2010, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman put nearly $100 million of her own money in a failed bid for governor. But close followers of campaign fundraising in the state believe that Bloomfield's splurge in support of Allen is unprecedented for a non-candidate in a state legislative race.
"The amount that Bloomfield has put in may be more than any single donor has put into one state Senate race," said Derek Cressman, the former vice president for state operations at Common Cause who made an unsuccessful bid for California secretary of state in this year's primary. "It's an example of the current campaign finance rules that give one individual such an outsized voice."
"It's certainly not every race that you see this," said Dan Newman, executive director of the San Francisco-based campaign finance tracking website MapLight.org.
What is most perplexing is that no one seems to know why Bloomfield, a pro-business independent who also funds school privatization efforts, is spending so much money on a race that will have no bearing on the big issue in California elections this year: whether Democrats can reach a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers of the legislature and completely sideline Republicans. Since both Fluke and Allen are Democrats, the outcome of their contest will not affect the partisan makeup of the Senate.
"The big issue out here is whether the Democrats will retain two-thirds control of the legislature," Cressman said. "So a lot of people are scratching their heads about what Bloomfield's up to."
Bloomfield did not respond to a request for comment on his spending in the race.
The Fluke campaign is, understandably, not pleased with the huge infusion of cash against its candidate.
"This race is just the latest glaring example of why we need to take serious action on campaign finance reform, and the differences between the two candidates on the issue are clear," Lindsay Bubar, general consultant to the Fluke campaign, said in a statement. "Mr. Allen is celebrating a conservative mega-donor's attempt to buy this election for him, and Sandra is standing up and fighting against it."
"We have no control or any communication with him," Allen campaign spokesman Eric Hacopian said of Bloomfield.
Hacopian further sought to deflect the criticism of Bloomfield's spending by noting that Allen has received most of his contributions from Californians while Fluke has raised much of her money from outside the state.
Meanwhile, Bloomfield has told LA Weekly that he was sold on Allen by Los Angeles Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whom Allen once interned for. Bloomfield said he decided to spend on the race to "level the playing field," even though the two candidates have raised almost identical amounts for their campaigns.
Bloomfield is also concerned about Fluke's national prominence. "He's running against somebody with extremely high name identification," he told LA Weekly.
Before entering the 26th District race, Fluke became a lightning rod in the public debate over women's health issues when Rush Limbaugh called her a "slut" on his radio program for testifying before Congress in support of requiring employers, including religiously affiliated institutions, to include birth control in their health insurance coverage.
Hacopian made a similar point about Fluke's name recognition. "It's not easy running against a national star," he said. "It's sort of a strange double standard. People essentially want us not to compete with her."
Making Bloomfield's spending on the race even stranger is that there is little daylight between the two candidates when it comes to publicly stated policy differences. Both claim to be progressive Democrats, and they were largely in agreement at a debate in October.
Bloomfield's spending makes more sense when one goes beyond public statements to delve into recent changes in the structure of California elections. Since the implementation of the state's open primary -- in which the top two vote-getters in each race, regardless of party, go on to the general election -- business interests have been busy exploiting the system: They help fund pro-corporate Democrats, sometimes former Republicans, in order to push the state further to the right without directly contesting its deep blue hue.
"At this point, what we are seeing is multinationals and major corporate interests pursuing a Democratic Party strategy as opposed to pursuing a strategy of having Republicans take over," Cressman said.
News site Capital and Main explored that dynamic in an investigative report on the rise of corporate-backed Democrats in the "jungle primary" system. One such lawmaker, state Assemblyman Steve Fox, told Capital and Main, "We’re pulling the party to the center, towards being more business-friendly."
Allen has given no real public sign that he would be a member of the Democrats' growing corporate bloc. He has, however, raised funds from corporate political action committees and Republican donors.
Republican Party heavyweights giving to Allen's campaign include billionaire Jerry Perenchio, the Gap-founding Fisher family, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and investor William Oberndorf. Both Perenchio and Oberndorf are donors to Karl Rove's American Crossroads super PAC, while the Fisher family was a major funder of a dark money laundering scheme to push 2012 California ballot initiatives that led to historic fines. Corporate PACs and business trade associations have also given more than $100,000 to Allen's campaign.
Criticism of the candidate's fundraising from PACs is misguided, Hacopian contended, as these contributions are "minuscule compared to what those interests are spending in other fronts." Since California Senate districts are larger than congressional districts and the state is tilted toward one party, it is hard to find a Democrat who hasn't received contributions from Republicans, he added.
Hacopian did suggest that these business donors may be open to Allen because they believe he will at least listen to their arguments.
"Whenever you have a race between two progressive Democrats, people want to see who will hear them out and who will not just be an ideologue," he said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated incorrectly that the Fluke and Allen campaigns had each raised $1.8 million. Each campaign has actually raised approximately $1.2 million.