52nd Congressional District among the most competitive, most likely to turn from red to blue

Peters campaign insists that they will be able to compete financially head to head.

As the race for the California 52nd District Congressional race begins to heat up between Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray and Democratic challenger Scott Peters, one of the more interesting and telling aspects of the race will be determining which candidate will have access to the most resources.  It is widely assumed that Bilbray will have a sizeable funding advantage, as Republicans stereotypically do.  After all, Scott Walker was able to outspend his Democratic challenger Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election by a margin of eight to one.

However, in an interview, a representative from the Scott Peters campaign insists that in this race the Democrat will be competitive.  Definitions of “competitive” may vary depending on perspective, but the campaign remains confident that they will be able to raise nearly as much money as the Bilbray campaign.

Thus far they are correct.  As of June 30th, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission Peters has raised $652,739 from individual contributors, just under $2,000 less than Bilbray’s $654,515.  The Peters campaign expects that to continue to be the case.

“In every race he’s ever run in he’s always raised the most money.  He’s a really great fundraiser,” said MaryAnne Pintar, Communications Director for the Peters campaign of the candidate.  “Part of that is that he has a really strong Democratic base, but he also pulls Republicans and independents.  If you look at his donor list, he does have a lot of Republican donors as well.”

“He has a really across the board appeal, which is why he’s been so successful at fundraising,” said Pintar, rattling off a list of prominent San Diego Republicans who are supporting Peters.

While it very well could be true that Peters will compete head to head in fundraising with the Republican incumbent—even possibly surpassing Bilbray’s totals—what is also true is that Bilbray will have a significant advantage in outside money being spent in support of his reelection.

That fact has already manifested itself in spades.  According to FEC records, Bilbray has already received $747,525 in PAC contributions during this election cycle, compared to the mere $88,520 that Peters has received.  Most of Bilbrays PAC contributions come from organizations that contribute exclusively to Republicans and Republican causes, such as the TRUST PAC of the National Republican Trust that seeks to “promote American values,” or the anti-abortion ICE PAC—Illinois Citizens for Ethics—or the myriad of PACs set up by Republican politicians such as Riverside County’s Ken Calvert, Washington State’s Cathy McMorris-Rogers, or the Bluegrass Committee, founded by the Republican Senate Minority Leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell.

And that doesn’t include the national Republican Super PACs that have yet to chime in.  It is virtually assured that the Koch funded Americans for Prosperity, Dick Armey’s Freedom Works, and Karl Rove’s Crossroads USA and Crossroads GPS will all get involved should they sense that Bilbray is in trouble.  There’s also the Las Vegas billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has pledged to spend upwards of $100 million by himself in this election cycle, exclusively on the Republican side.

It should be noted that Adelson is under federal investigation for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for allegedly bribing a Macau elected official in exchange for help in gaining approval to build a massive casino, which could speak to his motivations.

For their part, the Peters campaign is comfortable that they’ll have their own significant outside backing, if not quite to the extent of Bilbray.  They have already received significant support from various labor organizations, including the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, and AFSCME, and expect more.  The Peters campaign also touts their long list of endorsements as an indicator of the campaign’s strength.

As a sign of their confidence, Pintar said that the campaign has already reserved $1.5 million in television advertising for the fall contest, matching the $1.5 million purchased by the National Republican Congressional Committee on Bilbray’s behalf.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee are also paying close attention to the race, although it is unclear at this point what kind of financial resources the Peters campaign can expect to receive from them.  What is clear is that the 52nd race will be one of the most hotly contested in the country, with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics rating it as one of the nation’s 15 closest Congressional contests.

But money isn’t the only factor that will determine the outcome in the 52nd District.  The electoral makeup of the new 52nd is very different from that of Bilbray’s former district, the California 50th that primarily consisted of Coastal North San Diego County, including one of the wealthiest locales in all of Southern California, Rancho Santa Fe.  Registration in that district leaned heavily Republican, giving Bilbray a much more comfortable home.

That is not the case in the 52nd, where voter registration is roughly evenly split between Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters.  “Bilbray’s San Diego-area district became several points more Democratic in redistricting, and he only got 41% in the all-party primary (Republican candidates won 48.8% of the vote, to 46.3% for the Democrats),” wrote the Center for Politics’ Kyle Kondik.

Voter turnout is expected to be another significant factor in determining the winner this time around.  Voter turnout was “abysmal” for the primary—called “the second weakest in 30 years” by the Voice of San Diego—but that will almost certainly not be the case in the fall general election with President Barack Obama on the ticket.

“Democratic turnout should increase in the fall, to the probable benefit of Democratic nominee Scott Peters,” wrote Kondik, adding that “this is the best opportunity for Democrats to unseat a Republican incumbent in California, where they need to net several seats in order to really put the House in play.”

Another advantage is that Peters will likely be the beneficiary of much of the ground resources that kept a massively outspent Lori Saldaña competitive and in the race until the very end during the primary election.  Pintar said that the campaign has already received pledges of support from many of the Democratic clubs around the area that previously supported Saldaña, including the Pt. Loma Democratic Club and the Rancho Santa Fe Democratic Club, which she noted are among the more active organizations in the county.

Add to that Peters’ ability to contribute his own considerable financial resources into the campaign, which should significantly cut into the PAC advantage that Bilbray will bring to the race.

“I think we will show that Brian has lost touch with this district, that he is not representative of this district,” said Pintar, Peters’ Communications Director.  “He ran in a much more conservative district, prior, where (his conservative) messages might have been compelling.  They’re not going to be as compelling in this district.  These are smart voters.  It’s a highly educated district.  It’s a moderate district that cares less about partisan politics and more about a representative who’s gonna work for them and get things done, and focus on jobs and schools, and the types of things that people care about, and that’s Scott.”


Andy Cohen

Andy spent 15 years working in the highest levels of the San Diego professional sports world, including both the Padres and the Chargers. He began his foray into writing while a volunteer for Francine Busby's 2010 Congressional campaign, eventually becoming a contributor to the now defunct SDNN. He has reported on local and national politics for both the OB Rag and the San Diego Free Press. When not reporting news and events, he offers political and policy commentary from a liberal perspective, occasionally turning back to his sports roots. While he does not hide his more liberal political bent, Andy always strives for fairness in the telling of a story.


  1. avatarjudi says

    I wonder how many of Lori’s supporters will now back Scott, or not vote at all. The rhetoric during the primary was pretty nasty and Scott needs to get their votes also. I can’t see them voting for Bilbray, but I can see them not voting at all.

    • avatarAndy Cohen says

      They’re pretty confident that Saldaña’s supporters will join their efforts. After all, she did formally endorse him. And as I wrote, they’ve already received commitments of assistance from many of the Democratic clubs that supported her in the primary. They’re going to need all of that support, too. If Peters’ campaign can come close to matching Saldaña’s ground efforts from the primary, then they will have an excellent chance at winning in November. Saldaña’s ground game in the primary was truly spectacular, and it kept her in the race until the bitter end.

  2. avatarJEC says

    It would be a misstake for Saldana supporters to not support Peters. I’m a Saldana supporter – Brian is like some picture of Dorian Gray – he was once reasonable, well intended – with Newt and Washington that all changed. Remember, and remind people, Brian is a member of the most reviled Congress on record.

  3. avatarAnnie says

    Nice article, Andy. I don’t like the fact that money dictates (in most cases) who is elected instead of character, history and action plan, but that is simply the way it is right now.

    Peters has some stressful times ahead of him playing the Mr. Money Bags game, but he has my vote.