Moderate millionaire floods far-flung House race


The super PAC of one of California’s richest political donors, who supports centrist Republicans, has dropped more money on an obscure House race than both candidates combined.

The committee, Spirit of Democracy America is largely funded by Charles T. Munger, Jr., the heir to Berkshire Hathaway’s billionaire vice chairman and the third third biggest donor in California politics in the past decade, according to a study by California Watch. The group has spent more than $545,000 on the race so far. Combined, candidates Paul Cook and Greg Imus reported spending $363,000 as of the most recent filings.

In the last 10 days alone, Spirit of Democracy America spent about $250,000 on cable TV ads and mailers — one of which can be seen below — in eastern California's 8th Congressional District, a huge swathe that covers isolated desert and mountainous territory bordering Nevada. 

The spending spree is striking because there's no suspense about which party will take the seat: California's new primary system, mandates that top two finishers, regardless of party, face each other in the general election, and both candidates who made it to the final round in the race for the seat that retiring Rep. Jerry Lewis is vacating are, like the incumbent, Republican.

The question is just how conservative a Republican the district will send to Washington. Munger's group is working to elect Cook, a state representative, over Imus, a Tea Party activist and the founder of an anti-illegal immigrant border watch group.

In terms of fundraising, Imus has been far out-distanced by his opponent. Cook has pulled in about $450,000 overall to Imus' $100,000, according to FEC reports and Imus himself. 

The contest is so little followed that Bob Stern, the past president of the former Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, a nonpartisan reform group that closed last year, had not heard of it. The district's distance from Los Angeles and the candidates' paltry resources spent on media raised have given a group like Munger's an opportunity to pounce. 

“It’s easy pickin’ for an outside group to come in and try to influence it,” Stern said.

Cook is campaigning as a bridge-builder with Democrats. Imus, who calls his opponent a liberal, has no paid staffers but does have the help of his son and a volunteer from a local Tea Party Group that serves as his assistant.

Imus also has very few endorsements, even from libertarian and Tea Party Groups. FreedomWorks, a well-funded, national Tea Party group, has not offered support. American for Tax Reform, the group run by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, turned Imus away too.

Americans for Tax Reform told Imus “they were through with their endorsement process.” After his interview with FreedomWorks a few weeks ago, Imus hasn’t heard back. Thus far, his ad campaign consists of 500 road signs and 3,000 yard signs emblazoned with his “Live Free or Die” slogan, Imus said.

Imus is not without ties to the political establishment. He was the chief of staff to State Rep. Tim Donnelly before stepping down to run this campaign. He did get endorsements from former presidential candidate Herman Cain and Congressman Tom McClintock.

He said will send his first mailer this week, and if there’s enough money in the bank, will send a second before the Nov. 6 election. He has produced web videos, including one called "2nd Amendment" showing Imus shooting fruit with a rifle.

Munger has been heavily involved at the state level for years. For this election, he has given over $20 million to a committee that opposes Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s ballot initiative to raise taxes and supports another that analysts say is meant to cripple labor’s influence. He has also given $2 million to candidates for the state assembly, according to the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, his liberal, millionaire sister has been working against her brother on the Brown measure.

Now the physicist is reaching into federal races. “It’s not surprising that Munger is supporting moderate Republicans. He’s trying to bring back the moderate Republicans in California,” Stern said.

Spirit of Democracy America has spent nearly $1 million on two California House races, about equally split between boosting Cook and another moderate Republican running for Congress, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who is facing veteran Democratic Rep. Lois Capps. That race is one the state’s hottest, attracting over $1.6 million in outside spending.

That there are so many competitive races in California this year is partially due to Munger’s largesse. He successfully put millions behind a 2010 proposition that took redistricting out of lawmakers’ hands and put a citizens panel in control.

“The House races are really the only game in town,” Stern said.

Outside groups have pumped at least $29.1 million into California's House races for the 2012 election, according to Sunlight’s Follow the Unlimited Money. In contrast, the presidential race does not see many ads because it’s a solid Democratic state overall and the Senate contest is not competitive this year.

The treasurer of Munger’s super PAC, Sacramento’s Thomas Hiltachk, did not respond to a request for an interview. And Munger did not return a voice message Monday.

In the Cook-Imus race, Spirit of Democracy America has been flooding homes with mailers this month. It has reserved ad time on Fox News through Election Day, according to FEC records and ad buys posted on Time Warner Cable’s website.

Imus has been saving the mailers, He said he saw three in the past week alone from the super PAC, and one from the Cook campaign. Two of the super PAC’s mailers shed a positive light on Cook, highlighting his military background and leadership in protecting children from pedophiles.

But another goes negative, linking Imus with Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan, claiming that Imus supporting a “Very dangerous” new plan. It also quotes Norquist and FreedomWorks criticizing Cain's plan.

The Cook campaign did not respond to a phone call requesting an interview Monday.

(Mailer courtesy of Imus for Congress)