WESTSIDE — The top two candidates in the race for the 50th Assembly District and outside spending groups that supported and opposed them laid out roughly $3.7 million so far, a review of campaign filings show.
According to Maplight, a nonpartisan research organization that tracks money in politics, Assemblywoman Betsy Butler and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom raised $2.6 million in their attempts to secure the spot. (As of presstime Friday Bloom was still leading the contest by just 79 votes. County election officials are still in the process of tallying the ballots.)
Independent expenditure committees — outside groups with no direct affiliation with either candidate — spent another $1.1 million.
An independent analysis of expenditures by the Daily Press showed that the two candidates spent nearly everything that they brought in, with a total of $3.3 million out the door from the candidates and independent expenditures together.
That total could still rise.
The result is over 10 times what Congresswoman-elect Julia Brownley (D-Ventura County) and her Republican opponent Mark Bernsley raised in 2008 to run independent of outside money for the then-41st Assembly District, which also included Santa Monica.
Butler, with the help of the Democratic Party and attorneys, raised 2.5 times the amount Bloom did in direct donations alone, although she spent a good deal in the early stage of the campaign for the primary.
Bloom raised less — $700,000 to her $1.8 million — and more was spent against him by outside organizations like public employee groups and a coalition of attorneys and conservationists.
Rolling in dough
There are a number of reasons that the cost of elections have gone up so much in recent years, said Pamela Behrsin, a spokesperson for Maplight.
A big one was the redistricting process.
Every 10 years, legislators were given an opportunity to redraw the electoral lines of districts for the State Assembly, State Senate and Congress. It led to a plethora of safe seats that were effectively guaranteed to go to either Democrats or Republicans.
Californians voted in 2008 to change that. For the first time, a group of civilians was put in charge of redistricting, a move that put a number of seats in jeopardy.
A second confounding factor was a 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court called Citizens United.
In a 5 to 4 decision, the court found that the federal government could not restrict the amount of independent spending done by corporations and unions.
That led to the rise of what became known as Super PACs, or super political action committees, that could funnel theoretically endless resources into political contests as long as they did not coordinate with the candidate.
“Nonpartisan redistricting no longer protected longtime incumbents, many of whom chose to retire, and the enormous flood of Super PAC money that was invested in key competitive races,” Berhsin said.
Bloom and Butler, both Democrats, began the race in a crowded field.
Torie Osborn, a left-wing advocate known on the Westside for her nonprofit work, and Brad Torgan, a West Hollywood Republican, were knocked out after the primary.
The race was so tight that Butler, the leading vote-getter, bested Osborn, who took fourth, by only 1.3 percent of the vote. She led Bloom, who took second, by 137 votes.
Just two years ago, it would have been Butler and Torgan alone in the general election, despite the fact that the Republican came in third in the primary.
A change of law, approved by the voters in 2010, created open primaries, which allowed the top two vote-getters to proceed to the general election despite party affiliation.
The tight primary held true for the general election as well. The 50th Assembly District is still up in the air, with Bloom leading by a slim margin.
Despite her significant economic advantage, Butler was running in a district that did not know her. The seated assemblywoman switched from her former 53rd District into the new 50th after redistricting moved her into a district with a Democratic incumbent.
Now it’s a waiting game until county officials call the election.
Bloom always had an advantage over Butler in the 50th because of his name recognition and his Jewish faith, said Allan Hoffenblum, political consultant and editor of the California Target Book, a publication providing insider information on congressional and state campaigns.
“All assemblymembers who won the Westside were Jewish,” Hoffenblum said, referring to the former 43rd Assembly District. The one exception to that rule in recent memory was former Gov. Gray Davis.
“It’s one of the most Jewish assembly districts in California,” he said.
The fact that Bloom was from the district, was of the Jewish faith and was well-known for his work on other levels of local government pushed him through to the end, Hoffenblum said.
Eliminate any of those and it would be unlikely that he would make it this far, he said.
For his part, Bloom is happy to have a light at the end of the tunnel in a race that has lasted over a year.
It was “a lot nastier and a lot longer” than City Council campaigns, he said, and the vitriolic nature of hit-piece mailers and advertising took a toll on the area.
“The closeness of the race reflects a divided district,” he said. “It comes as a result of these kinds of campaigns. Whether I am ultimately the prevailing candidate or not, bringing the community together is something that I’ll find a way to accomplish.”
The influx of money into the Westside race was not unique.
According to estimates by the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group tracking money in politics, almost $6 billion was laid out by politicians and outside organizations in races for the White House and Congress, topping the second-most expensive by $700 million.