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Super PACs Spending Big, Spending Negative In Congressional Race

Two shots from ads against Brian Bilbray and Scott Peters.
Two shots from ads against Brian Bilbray and Scott Peters.

Super PACs, the mega fundraising-and-spending political committees created in 2010, promised to spend big in the race for San Diego’s 52nd Congressional seat. With less than a month to the election, their promise has proven true.

Super PACs, which can raise and spend virtually without limits, have plowed $4 million into the race. Almost all of it was spent on negative ads.

Once considered a safe Republican seat, the 52nd District was redrawn. It now encompasses roughly equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents. The district extends from Coronado up to La Jolla and inland into Poway.


Republican Brian Bilbray, currently a congressman in the 50th District, faces Democrat Scott Peters, a former San Diego city councilman and current port commissioner. Each has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars so far, but their individual campaigns pale compared to what the Super PACs are dishing.

And the tone is just as stark. Super PACs have a reputation for fueling negative advertising, and that’s true in the 52nd.

As of October 12, they’ve spent nearly $2 million to oppose Bilbray and $2.4 million to oppose Peters. Most of the negativity has come from Democratic and Republican party committees.

Super PACs have spent relatively little to support the candidates: $356,000 for Bilbray and $4,200 for Peters.

Nationwide, Super PACs have spent more than half a billion dollars to oppose candidates and only $135 million to support them.


Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna is not surprised to see these committees focusing on tearing down candidates. Because these committees are not allowed to coordinate with a candidate, candidates can look the other way.

“The candidate can always say, ‘Oh, look, it wasn’t my money. I’m shocked that people would do such a terrible thing to my opponent,’” Luna said. “It gives them plausible deniability.”

Super PACs, formally known as independent expenditure committees, began in 2010 as a result of federal court decisions. When they spend large amounts, they must list whether the money is supporting or opposing a candidate. Unlike candidate committees, they have no spending or fundraising limits, but must stay “independent” of particular candidates.

Super PACs are spending big this year, especially in the presidential election. The largest Super PAC is Restore Our Future. That committee has spent $95 million, mostly to support Mitt Romney and oppose Barack Obama.

So, how can you tell who is paying for what?

Any political ad must list at the end who’s paying for it. A candidate’s committee will say the candidate’s name, as in, “Paid for by Joe Schmoe for Congress.” A Super PAC ad will say “Paid for by the Democratic Campaign Committee, Republican Campaign Committee, Fill-In-The-Blank Committee” and so on.

Luna said political science research on negative ads shows that, while effective, they might not be as helpful to candidates as they might think.

“It’s not as common that you swing a voter from one candidate to another when you air negative ads,” he said. “Where negative ads do work is to scare off people who might be supporting the candidate you’re opposing. Then they might not just vote, which diminishes voter turnout.”

Local Super PACs have also come into play in the San Diego mayor’s race. Those local independent expenditure committees have thrown in a total of $1.8 million thus far for and against the candidates, City Councilman Carl DeMaio and Congressman Bob Filner.