The race to replace U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo is California’s most expensive House race. Here’s where the money is flowing.

The race to replace U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo is California’s most expensive House race. Here’s where the money is flowing.

The 11 candidates vying to replace U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo in a rare congressional open seat have collectively spent $5.7 million ahead of the March 5 primary, and outside groups and Super PACs have doled out more than $2.4 million, with roughly half of that shelled out for a relative newcomer to politics.

The District 16 race is now California’s most expensive House race, according to the nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets. The candidate elected in November will succeed Eshoo after more than three decades in Congress and will represent roughly 735,000 residents in parts of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

At the end of last year, former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo held a healthy lead in fundraising, but earlier this month, tech entrepreneur and veteran Peter Dixon eclipsed the well-known politico and amassed nearly $2.8 million, more than half of that from his own bank accounts. In comparison, Liccardo has raised the second-most at $2.2 million. The former mayor, however, has the most cash on hand with $1.2 million still to spend.

Dixon, who is the founder of cybersecurity company Second Front Systems, has loaned $1.4 million to his own campaign. Financial disclosure forms filed with the clerk of the House of Representatives show pages of investments and other income sources and some debts for Dixon, who is carrying liabilities in the range of $1 million to $5 million owed to 137 Aggregator V, LLC. The venture capital firm, also known as 137 Ventures, has invested in companies like SpaceX and Uber.

Dixon and his campaign staff did not respond to several requests for comment.

Sean McMorris, the transparency, ethics and accountability program manager for good government group California Common Cause, said it becomes an accountability issue because some self-funded candidates don’t engage with voters as much because they don’t need to solicit as many donations.

“Money should not dictate who should run for office or who gets elected,” he said.

At the congressional level, money plays a large role in the election, and while McMorris said it’s not the “determining factor,” candidates need a minimum of a couple hundred thousand dollars to get their message out.

And for a lesser-known candidates like Dixon, outside money can make a big difference. Of the $2.4 million in total independent expenditures in the race, the largest spender has been the Next Generation Veteran Fund, which had spent nearly $1.3 million on TV ads, digital ads, and mailers supporting Dixon.

When you follow the money spent backing Dixon, you find “quite a daisy chain of transfers,” said Saurav Ghosh, Director of Federal Campaign Finance Reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group. It goes back to a web of three other veteran-related Super PACs; the Principled Veterans’ Fund, and two iterations of the With Honor Fund, Inc. PAC. The With Honor Fund Inc. PAC got $10 million in seed funding from Jeff Bezos, the billionaire funder of Amazon, in 2018, and another $12 million from Bezos’ parents since then.

Bezos’ father, Mike Bezos, serves on With Honor’s advisory board.

“It’s concerning that the money is being obscured in this way, particularly because the money seems to have originated from a Super PAC that the candidate himself established and ran for many years,” Ghosh said, referring to the fact Dixon co-founded With Honor, which has several arms: a 501(c)(4) organization, the With Honor Fund Super PAC and another federal PAC. The With Honor Fund, Inc. PAC was dissolved in September 2023, three months before Dixon declared his candidacy.

These independent expenditure committees and candidates are legally barred from coordinating with each other.

Other top fundraisers in the race include Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Cupertino), who has raised $1.3 million and spent a little over $1 million, and Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has raised roughly $1 million and spent $938,000. Simitian also loaned his campaign $250,000 on Feb. 23, according to campaign filings. Palo Alto City Councilwoman Julie Lythcott-Haims, who is the only woman in the race, has raised roughly $595,000 and spent $443,000.

The remaining candidates who have raised and spent significantly less money include former Saratoga Councilmember Rishi Kumar — who has run for the seat in the past — attorney Ahmed Mostafa, Stanford graduate student and climate investor Joby Bernstein, Palo Alto City Councilmember Greg Tanaka and former Menlo Park Mayor Peter Ohtaki, who is one of two Republicans in the race. Karl Ryan, a businessman and the other Republican in the race, has not reported any fundraising or spending.

Aside from Next Generation Veteran Fund, several other outside groups have poured money into the race to back Liccardo, Low and Simitian.

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Neighbors for Results, a Super PAC formed in support of Liccardo, has spent $409,377 on mailers, text messaging, digital ads and polling. The group has listed funding from one individual so far: Daniel Warmenhoven, the former CEO of NetApp. Part of the Solutions PAC has spent $247,785 supporting Simitian through polling and digital ads and it lists major funding coming from former HealthNet CEO Jay Gellert.

Four different groups have spent a collective $547,662 to support Low’s candidacy: the Voter Protection Project, Equality PAC, Equality California Votes and the Golden State Leadership Fund PAC, which has spent nearly $400,000 and has major funding from PG&E and the California Apartment Association.

California Common Cause’s McMorris said it’s important that voters look at the bottom of mailers and ads to see if they’re being paid for by the candidate or special interest groups. And while candidates and these outside groups aren’t allowed to coordinate, McMorris said that “none of us are immune to the influence of money.”

“Voters should realize this is a special interest that is more likely than not who is supporting the candidate because they think the candidate will assist them in some way or they think they will have more access to this candidate,” he said. “At the end of the day most of this comes down to those special interests wanting goodies”