There used to be limits on what a person or company could give to a candidate for federal office or spend independently in support of a campaign.
But things are different now.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision in a campaign spending case that you're hearing a lot about these days — Citizens United — found those limits to be an unconstitutional restraint on freedom of speech.
So now, people and companies can give unlimited amounts to political action committees called Super PACS — and those Super PACSs can spend it in support of or opposition to candidates for federal offices as long as they don't coordinate with the candidates' own campaigns.
Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson studies campaign finance law and suggests three reasons for the spending in California: First, a nonpartisan citizens commission redrew district lines to make elections more competitive. Second, California changed election laws to permit voting for candidates of any party in the primary, with the top two going to the general election — even if they're from the same party.
"Three, as a result of Supreme Court decisions, particularly Citizens United, the handcuffs are really off corporations to spend unlimited funds on independent expenditures," Levinson said.
The second-biggest investment of Super PAC money in a California Congressional race is $1.59 million spent on a single race in Ventura County, where Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, a Democrat, ran in the primary against Republican state Sen. Tony Strickland and an independent, Linda Parks. In contrast to the San Bernardino County race and the corporated-funded Super PACs, in Ventura County much of the money came from political parties.
"Businesses can have a different and more narrow interest in electing candidates with favorable positions," said Levinson, "while political parties are trying to build the party, build the party ideology and increase their numbers."
In that Ventura County race, the House Majority PAC — a Super PAC for Democrats — spent money on two fronts. It spent nearly $627,000 in support of Democrat Brownley and $177,000 against the independent candidate, Parks.
"This is a race where the House Majority PAC has a lot of interest," said Jay Costa, who analyzes political spending for the MapLight Foundation, a California nonpartisan organization.. "It wouldn't surprise me if they are willing to pour a lot more money into this race."
Brownley advanced to the general election against Republican Tony Strickland, but she'll soon feel the sting of Super PAC money being spent against her. The Republican National Congressional Committee recently put $447,000 into a media buy opposing her.