California has long been the competitively sterile, neglected sugar mama of American politics. Donors in the state have shelled out more than $320 million to federal candidates over the last four years, according to one estimate by the Center for Responsive Politics. But with much of that money going out of state, the political environment has been woefully uncompetitive. In the last decade, only one House seat, currently held by Rep. Jerry McNerney (D), has flipped. The last Republican senator elected in California was Pete Wilson, who left Washington in 1991 to run for governor.
But at the federal level this year, the state has some real races on its hands. California’s Citizen Redistricting Commission drew about a half dozen borderline swing districts when it reworked the 53-seat map. "For years, there’s been a lack of competitive congressional races in California,” says Hall. “The top-two [primary] certainly creates a different dynamic, but also the redistricting created so many more competitive races and with that is the ability to work on a lot more races."
There’s Rep. Dan Lungren (R) facing a rematch against a million-dollar-man challenger in Democrat Ami Bera. Rep. John Garamendi (D) has a more heavily GOP district and a strong challenger in Colusa County Supervisor Kim Dolbow Vann.
Then there were also the intra-party contests, the most famous of which pitted Democratic Rep. Howard Berman against Rep. Brad Sherman in the primary for the 30th district. A pre-primary tally for the two old bulls has them burning through $5,668,579 combined – and that’s without the spending by outside groups.
The type of primary contest fought by Berman and Sherman is what observers expect will breathe some new competition into California politics. The new system, which was employed for the first time June 5, allows the top-two vote getters in congressional races—and contests for statewide and legislative offices—to advance to the November election.
Under the old rules, the Berman-Sherman fight for the San Fernando Valley seat would have been decided in June. Now, that race will extend until November as the two congressmen have progressed, guns blazing, under the top-two rule. The presence of newly founded Super PACs is also being felt in the Berman-Sherman contest—another avenue of new business for California-based operatives. A pro-Berman Super PAC bought $500,000 in cable television advertising ahead of the primary.
Eliminating the party nominations for every office except president means that, even in the deep blue North Bay suburbs or solid red San Diego County, there’s an invigorated contest for votes. “You’ve got a tremendous opportunity out there,” says Mark Standriff, a Republican consultant who recently struck out on his own after serving as spokesman for the state GOP. “The challenge is connecting with the candidates to make them understand that there’s someone out there who can guide them through this new, uncharted territory.”
Standriff, a former radio host who is advising GOP Senate nominee Elizabeth Emken, says the full-service firms in California are the ones best positioned to take advantage of the increase in political spending. “You’ve got a lot of firms out there that have full-service boutiques so the client doesn’t have to go shopping around,” he says. “These are the ones finding [the] most opportunities.”
The firms getting the California opportunities need to be based here, consultants note. Hall’s firm has been advising Berman’s campaign. During the primary, he often spent hours at the congressman’s Encino campaign office. "If you're there and you're pitching against a consultant who's further away, it's an inherent advantage," says Hall. "I think that's particularly helpful in California, because it's been run by California consultants for so long and national consultants have a hard time." Hall is also advising House candidates Ann Kirkpatrick in Arizona and Dina Titus in Nevada. Both women are seeking a return to office after being unseated in the last cycle.
"I'm a five-hour drive from both those clients and those are both big races," he says.
In California, the top-two primary also applies in state Assembly and Senate races, where spending exploded this year. Four years ago, candidates spent $23.2 million in the primaries for state legislative races, according to a tally by the California Secretary of State’s office. In 2012, the amount spent almost doubled to $43.6 million.
Part of the reason for the spending increase, consultants say, is that Republican candidates now believe they have a better chance of competing in Democratic-leaning districts because of the new system. That means staffing up in June as though it’s the general. It’s not as much the case on the Democratic side, according to Eric Hogensen, a direct mail consultant based in the Los Angeles area.
“Instead of the primary being the main point—when a Democrat wins the primary, it’s over— now the primary’s in November. That’s when the main activity happens,” he says.
What’s certain is that the new primary system requires more targeting precision. After all, the swing voter in some contests could be a member of the other party. With that mind, Schlackman predicts, mail spending is set to increase dramatically.
California has some of the most expensive media markets in the country. It can cost $1 million to run a weekly TV ad on KTLA in Los Angeles. TV time in San Francisco costs $695 a ratings point. “There’s only so much TV time you can buy,” Schlackman says. “There’s going to be a lot more spending on Internet ads, mail and phones.”
Mail piece designers are really the ones reaping the benefits of the new primary system, says Wayne Johnson, who is based in Sacramento. For media consultants like Johnson, “it’s not been a gold rush,” he says. Since the appeal is no longer aimed squarely at the party base and instead needs to be tailored to persuadable voters, Johnson says.
He also has a different take on the math that’s aroused some of his colleagues. “One thing about having so many competitive races,” Johnson says, “there’s less money in each of them.”