Voting booths inside a elections polling center
Early voting starts Feb. 24 for the March 5 primary election. File photo.

Special interest money is flowing into the race for California’s 16th congressional district with the March 5 primary election right around the corner.

The race to replace Rep. Anna Eshoo, who is retiring, has gotten an influx of special interest spending in January. Candidates have already raised millions of dollars as of Dec. 31, some coming directly from political action committees (PACs). But the amount pales in comparison to what’s being spent on advertising on behalf of candidates by independent expenditure-only committees, or super PACs.

Four candidates have received super PAC funding so far: marine veteran and tech entrepreneur Peter Dixon, Assemblymember Evan Low, Santa Clara County District 5 Supervisor Joe Simitian and former San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. In total, super PACs have spent $1,923,185 in the race. None of the other seven candidates have reported support from a federal super PAC.

Super PACs differ from typical PACs in that they have no spending limit and do not directly donate money to campaign committees, candidates or otherwise. Super PACs are also not supposed to coordinate their spending with the candidates’ committees. PACs are normally limited to $5,000 per election if donating directly to a candidate.

Sean McMorris, transparency, ethics and accountability program manager for California Common Cause, said super PACs are likely spending more in this race because it’s an open seat. McMorris added that even if there’s no coordination between candidates and the super PACs, these groups support candidates who they think would best protect the groups’ interests.

“It sends a strong message,” McMorris told San José Spotlight. “They’re hoping in one way or another that the candidate feels some type of obligation toward them once they’re in office and with that obligation, that opens doors potentially for them to get access and influence over the candidate once they’re actually seated.”

Dixon has received the most by far, with the “Next Generation Veterans Fund” super PAC spending $1,061,189 on mailers, commercials and digital ads supporting his campaign. The fund formed in January this year and has not yet filed its donors.

The group’s spending is nearly on par with Dixon’s campaign fundraising, as he reported having raised $1,431,679 by the end of last year, of which $575,000 is a loan from himself to his campaign.

The group bought digital advertising space through Meta, and the Meta Ad Library shows eight advertisements are still active. The advertisements were mostly shown to users older than 40, with slightly more men seeing the ads than women. At their peak, the ads reached about 600,000 screens.

They describe Dixon as supporting reproductive freedom, public safety solutions and affordable higher education, as well as being opposed to former President Donald Trump and antisemitism.

The “Golden State Leadership Fund” has spent $305,186 to support Low’s candidacy, through polling and producing and disseminating digital video advertisements. The digital video ads were published through Google, with the Google Ads Transparency Center reporting they reached a maximum of 1.25 million viewers. They target any age group and describe Low as “a fighter who’s not afraid to take on a bullet” against “MAGA Republicans.”

This group was founded in 2016 and has received significant funding from PG&E and East West Bank over the years. Most recently, PG&E sunk $125,000 into the committee in 2023.

McMorris said looking at a super PAC’s donors lets voters see which special interests support certain candidates.

“At a minimum, they don’t want to make any enemies,” McMorris said. “All these special interests are fighting to get the person who — out of all those candidates — is going to be the most beneficial to them.”

The “Part of the Solution PAC” has spent $247,785 to support Simitian, all of which has gone into producing and distributing digital advertising. The Google Ads Transparency Center shows a video and one other digital advertisement, both of which are targeted at viewers 35 years or older. At their peak, these ads have been shown 125,000 times.

“Neighbors for Results” has spent $309,026 on mail advertisements, text messages and polling in support of Liccardo.

Liccardo and Simitian are the race’s frontrunners, according to an independent poll sponsored by this news outlet. More than one-third of voters are still undecided.

If an advertisement says it’s not paid for or endorsed by the candidate, McMorris told San José Spotlight he recommends voters be critical of the ad because it’s coming from a super PAC. He said the advertisement’s messaging could also indicate what groups want out of candidates, and suggested voters do some research about candidates and the super PACs.

“If nothing else, they know that this type of business, corporation, interest believes in this candidate and wants them elected, more likely than not,” McMorris said.

Santa Clara County started sending mail-in ballots for the primary election on Feb. 5, and early voting polls will open on Feb. 24.

Contact B. Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or @SakuCannestra on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Numbers have been updated to account for amended filings.

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