Two candidates running for an Assembly seat in the Inland Empire have brought in more than $650,000 in campaign donations this year — among the most in the state — with more expected over the next three months.
The reason is simple: The seat, California 60th, could tilt the balance of power in Sacramento.
Campaign finance reports show that Assemblywoman Sabrina Cervantes, D-Riverside, has raised $383,000 so far this year, while her opponent, Republican Bill Essayli, has brought in $268,000. Those figures don’t include non-cash donations and spending from outside groups.
What’s more, the money is flowing faster as Nov. 6 General Election gets closer. Filings from July 31, for the period from May 20 to June 30, show Cervantes raised almost $169,000 while Essayli raised $100,000.
There’s likely more money on the way for both candidates. Cervantes raised more than $1.9 million for her 2016 campaign, while her opponent that year, then-GOP incumbent Eric Linder, took in a little more than $1 million, records show.
Right now, the money raised by Cervantes and Essayli ranks fourth among 80 Assembly races in California, said Rob Pyers of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which studies legislative races.
Cervantes, in her first term after unseating Linder, and Essayli, a former federal prosecutor, are vying for a seat that represents Corona, Norco, Eastvale, Jurupa Valley and part of Riverside. The job pays about $104,000 a year plus per diem.
While Democrats enjoy an 8-percentage-point edge in the district’s voter registration, the 60th is considered one of the most competitive Inland races of the current election cycle. In the June 5 primary, with Essayli and Cervantes the only names on the ballot, Essayli edged out Cervantes with 52.7 percent of the vote.
A key to the general election might be backlash — or acceptance — of the state’s gas tax.
Cervantes was a swing vote for SB 1, a bill passed by the legislature last year that raised California’s gas tax by 12 cents a gallon and imposed new fees on vehicles. The hikes are intended to raise $52.4 billion over 10 years to fix roads and boost transportation alternatives statewide.
Essayli, 32, has focused on Cervantes’ vote, hoping it will anger voters in a district full of commuters. He also has associated himself with the effort to pass Prop. 6, a November ballot measure that would repeal the gas tax hike and other parts of SB 1.
Cervantes, who at 30 is the Assembly’s youngest member, has stressed her record of getting bills passed that deal with criminal justice and other matters. She has defended her vote for SB 1, noting that she helped secure $427 million for infrastructure in the 60th and convinced Gov. Jerry Brown to restore vehicle license fee revenue to Eastvale, Jurupa Valley, Wildomar, and Menifee.
The 60th represents a pickup opportunity for California Republicans hoping to prevent a Democratic supermajority in the Assembly and state Senate. A supermajority allows one party to pass taxes and put constitutional amendments on the ballot without the support of other parties.
To stop a Democratic supermajority in the Assembly, Republicans need to flip three currently Democratic seats and hold onto the vacant seat in the 40th Assembly, which has been open since March, when Rancho Cucamonga Republican Marc Steinorth stepped down.
In the primary, Republican Henry Nickel, a city councilman in San Bernardino, got the most votes in the 40th, finishing ahead of James Ramos, a Democrat and a Supervisor in San Bernardino County. Nickel pulled off the strong showing even though Ramos raised far more money.
Still, the 40th is not a GOP lock. Though Ramos finished second, he and the other key Democrat in the race took more than 54 percent of the primary vote, and Democrats hold a registration advantage in the district.
All of which puts more focus on the 60th, and the battle between Cervantes and Essayli.
Even before Essayli finished first, “(the 60th) was always going to be a top (Republican) target,” Pyers said. “Given the limited target map for Republicans, (the 60th) is critical.”
To that end, Essayli is getting plenty of support from the GOP.
His top donors include the California Republican Party and GOP mega-donor Charles Munger Jr. Assembly members Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley; Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore and Jay Obernolte, R-Big Bear Lake, have contributed to his campaign, as has congressman Ken Calvert, R-Corona.
The state GOP also has paid for campaign staffers’ wages as well as office space and utilities for the Essayli campaign.
Much of Cervantes’ support comes from labor unions, who are her biggest campaign donors. She’s also getting donations from Democratic lawmakers, including Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, D-Grand Terrace and Cervantes’ former boss, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, and the California Democratic Party paid for Cervantes campaign mailers.
Other Cervantes donors include a wide range of political action committees – the California Latino Leadership Caucus PAC and the California Medical Association PAC among them – and businesses selling everything from soda to Internet services.
Money could start pouring into the 60th from independent expenditure committees, which are barred by law from coordinating with campaigns but can pay for ads supporting or opposing candidates.
So far, the independent money favors Cervantes. Planned Parenthood and the California Charter Schools Association have spent more than $31,000 in digital ads and other activities supporting Cervantes, while the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, which is the union representing sheriff’s deputies, spent almost $1,700 on printed material in support of Essayli.
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