A handful of moderate Democrats and Republicans, beneficiaries of millions in oil contributions, are headed to the California Senate and Assembly this week.
The industry spent heavily on the primary and general elections to boost business-friendly Republicans and moderate Democrats. One oil-funded political action committee — The Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class, Including Energy Companies who Produce Gas, Oil, Jobs and Pay Taxes — spent more than $8 million in 2022 backing candidates it thought might be helpful in fending off a possible windfall penalty.
In addition to PAC spending, individual companies also gave directly to some candidates.
There is no guarantee victorious candidates on the receiving end of the spending will ultimately do oil’s bidding. PAC-funded television ads and mailers were typically organized through independent expenditures, meaning campaigns could neither accept nor reject the support.
Early indications may emerge Monday as legislators gather for a special session, convened by Gov. Gavin Newsom to tackle alleged oil industry price gouging amid record earnings and high gas prices.
Here’s who won, who lost and what it might mean for oil and environmental interests in the California Legislature.
Which oil PAC candidates won?
There was plenty of oil money to be had throughout California, but the Coalition to Restore emerged in October and November as one of the biggest players in races statewide. The PAC backed eight legislative candidates — four Republicans and four moderate Democrats — during the last month before the Nov. 8 election. Five won and three lost.
In the Sacramento area, Senate candidate Angelique Ashby and Assembly contender Stephanie Nguyen won Democrat-on-Democrat races against opponents seen as more progressive. The PAC poured more money into this region than any other in the state. It spent more than $1.6 million backing Ashby and more than $900,000 supporting Nguyen.
Elsewhere in the Central Valley, Republican Juan Alanis won his Modesto-area Assembly race against Democrat Jessica Self after the Coalition to Restore contributed more than $400,000. The PAC lost in Kern County after spending more than $500,000 backing Assembly candidate Leticia Perez, who came up short against fellow Democrat Jasmeet Bains.
In Southern California, Coalition to Restore backed Republican Janet Nguyen with more than $200,000 in her successful Orange County Senate race against Democrat Kim Carr. The PAC spent more than $140,000 supporting Democratic Assembly candidate Juan Carrillo in the Palmdale area, where he beat out Republican Paul Andre Marsh.
The Coalition to Restore lost its Assembly election in Santa Clarita after Democrat Pilar Schiavo edged out Republican Suzette Valladares to flip the seat blue. The PAC spent nearly $500,000 backing incumbent Valladares.
The PAC experienced its worst defeat in San Diego, where Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Blakespear beat Republican Matt Gunderson. The Coalition to Restore spent more than $1.2 million opposing Blakespear and north of $600,000 supporting Gunderson.
What do oil and moderate Democrats say?
The oil industry mostly stays mum on the criteria it uses to assess candidates.
Coalition to Restore does not comment on its selection process, said Megan Gamble, vice president of Wilson Public Affairs, which runs the PAC’s communications.
“The Coalition to Restore California’s Middle Class supports leaders who have protected California jobs and the middle class and share our commitment to policies that help businesses thrive and fight to keep the cost of living from exploding,” the PAC said in a statement.
David Townsend runs Californians for Jobs and a Strong Economy, a PAC that backs moderate “business friendly” Democrats with a combination of direct donations and independent expenditure ad campaigns. The PAC receives some funding from oil companies and supported some of the same candidates as Coalition to Restore, although Townsend made it clear Californians for Jobs and the oil industry group don’t completely overlap.
Townsend’s PAC heavily supported Ashby and opposed Jones, and it also backed Nguyen and Carrillo.
He said his group had a sense of Guerra and Jones’s political philosophies, and they chose candidates who better aligned with their moderate ideology.
“It’s not like it’s, like, a game, or maybe if we really talked to him, we can get him to be more like us,” Townsend said. “People are only supporting people that are already like us.”
Andrew Acosta, Nguyen’s campaign consultant, said he did not think oil independent expenditures or any one factor led to her victory. As for Newsom’s proposal, Acosta said supporting legislation before knowing all the details is always a bad idea.
The Elk Grove-south Sacramento candidate did not take strong stances on environmental issues because her strengths aligned with other topics, Acosta said.
For example, Nguyen runs a nonprofit, Asian Resources Inc., in addition to serving on the Elk Grove City Council. Acosta said they opted to spotlight that work with the immigrant community instead of topics she did not necessarily address during her local political career.
“I don’t think you know where members are until they start voting,” Acosta said.
What do environmentalists say?
Although a group of oil-backed candidates will be sworn into the Legislature on Monday, one environmental advocate does not think the industry was entirely successful in the 2022 election, based on how much money it sunk into races.
Mike Young, California Environmental voters political and organizing director, said the industry had an impact on races — especially those in the Sacramento area — simply due to the “sheer amount of dollars.”
The industry still played in races the PAC didn’t target for independent expenditures, including the incredibly tight Palm Springs-area election between Democrat Christy Holstege and Republican Greg Wallis. Coalition to Restore donated $500,000 to the Republican Party, which spent heavily on that race.
And individual oil companies — including Chevron, Valero and Marathon Petroleum — also donated directly to Wallis’s campaign.
Young said the industry selected races in which they saw favorable candidates and skipped those in which they knew they couldn’t be competitive. Even though oil company candidates came out on top in some races, they spent heavily on some elections that didn’t pan out in their favor.
Young cited Perez’s loss in Kern County, and Gunderson’s loss in San Diego as examples of that. He also said some of their better races were closer than the industry might have liked, considering the amount of money spent. And Young sees the fact that candidates are getting attacked for any possible connection to oil dollars as a sign of progress.
“Everyone’s going to say that they have victories, but really I would still assess oil had a pretty bad night,” Young said. “With the amount of dollars they have, they should be winning a lot more than they do. And they’re going to come into a legislature that is going to be a lot less friendly to them than they were in last cycle.”
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