Why are oil and gas companies pumping money into a down-ballot East Bay race for State Senate?

Why are oil and gas companies pumping money into a down-ballot East Bay race for State Senate?

A 15-second ad during a Good Morning America commercial break this week featured an attack on Jerry McNerney, the former congressman who is currently one of the two leading candidates in the California State Senate District 5 race. It painted him as a hypocrite who criticized and then accepted PAC money.

Related Articles

Election |

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

Election |

Letters: Fiscally responsible | Public financing | Progressive choice | Prioritize climate

Election |

Supreme Court sets April arguments over whether Trump can be prosecuted for election interference

Election |

Editorial: East Bay voters should OK only one of four school bond plans

Election |

California US Senate candidates enter ‘go mode’ with less than a week until primary

“Former Congressman Jerry McNerney said campaign money is poisoning the system,” the ad read. “But Jerry McNerney took $5.3 million in PAC money. Guess he didn’t mean it.”

At the end of the ad, in small text, it identified the buyer: Valero, Phillips 66, and Marathon Petroleum.

So why are fossil fuel companies investing half a million dollars in a race that seems to be little more than a choice between two Democrats–McNerney and State Assemblymember Carlos Villapudua–for a seat being vacated by another Democart, Susan Talamantes-Eggman. The seat covers much of Eastern Alameda County and Parts of San Joaquin County.

According to Elizabeth Bergman, an associate professor of political science at Cal State East Bay, the outside money is evidence of the toss-up nature of the race, and the way politics has been played since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision, which knocked down limits on corporate campaign spending. Such independent expenditures are often made without the knowledge or consent of a particular candidate.

“They don’t just throw their money around willy-nilly – they make good, astute investments,” Bergman said. “This one makes particular sense to me because it’s effectively an open seat.”

Although there are no refineries in the district, Bergman said lobbying groups target any seat that they think they might be able to influence in a 40-seat state senate. McNerney, who describes himself as a proponent of climate action, may not be viewed as a friendly partner. Villapudua, meanwhile, is considered one of the more moderate California Assembly members.

“They have to do what I call, ‘finding your Republican’,” Bergman said. “In this case, it’s Villapudua.”

A large portion of the $2.6 million in outside spending in the District 5 election–a surprising amount for a down-ballot primary race–has come from an oil and gas industry PAC,the Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, whose funders include Chevron, Phillips 66, Marathon Petroleum and Valero.

The companies had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

According to available records, the group has spent $522,000 in opposition to McNerney’s candidacy. Another PAC, “Fighting for our Future” has spent an additional $347,000 opposing him. Meanwhile, a group representing nurses and educators, the largest spender in the race, has spent about $367,000 in support of McNerney and $630,000 opposing Villapudua.

In an interview with this news organization, McNerney painted Villapudua as a friend of fossil fuels, and noted the same group had supported his opponent in Villapudua’s race for the State Assembly in 2018.

“They obviously think he’s going to look out for their interest in the State Senate,” McNerney said. “That’s pretty much how politics works now.”

Villapudua’s campaign had not responded to requests for comment by press time.

McNerney’s campaign has thus far raised $300,000, trailing both the amount spent by the oil and gas group against him and the $423,380 raised by Villapudua through Feb. 17. The largest amount of money in support of McNerney has come from the nursing, education and reproductive rights group. As the attack ad said, it’s true that McNerney too has benefited from independent expenditures.

With less than a week to go before Election Day, it remains to be seen what effect the outsized amount of money involved will have on the race.

“There’s a lot of money in the race,” Bergman said. “We know it’s going to be close.”