San Luis Obispo County’s Republican Central Committee has raised more money than any other county GOP committee in California this election season — $3.2 million, state records show — and it has spent even more directly on legislative races than the statewide party, making it a pivotal player this fall in California politics.
That is all because of one man: Templeton resident John Peschong, a 25-year veteran Republican consultant.
With Democrats just a few seats away from a two-thirds majority in the state Senate, the November election’s outcome could bring them that much closer to being able to pass items on their agenda.
Democrats now hold 25 of the Senate’s 40 seats, leaving them only two seats away from a supermajority. Such an outcome, coupled with a Democratic majority in the Assembly, could essentially mute Republican power in decisions such as tax increases.
While Peschong, 50, has made it rain along the Central Coast with big corporate and political donors, there was another less personal reason for the windfall — politics. A lack of faith in the state party has left a vacuum that has been filled by county parties, chief among them San Luis Obispo County’s.
As a result, San Luis Obispo County’s Republican Central Committee has become the main financial backer in a handful of races vital to Republican influence.
“It’s very unusual for a local party organization to supplant the state party, and I think that’s what you are seeing in San Luis Obispo and that area,” said Jim Ross, a Democratic political consultant based in San Francisco.
Local committee money
Four years ago, the county GOP raised a relatively small amount of money: $27,375. Then, in 2010, Peschong was elected as the county party chairman, and its fundraising more than quadrupled to $126,271. After that, money began pouring in. From Jan. 1 through Thursday, the local party had raised nearly $3.2 million.
“I wrote a political plan, and I went to donors, and I said, ‘Would you like to help us prevent the Democratic Party from getting the two-thirds and raising taxes?’ ” recalled Peschong, who lives in Templeton with his wife and two young children.
Relying on his long-established state and national political connections, Peschong sold his plan and made it a reality — attracting most of the county party’s money from outside the area.
Peschong’s political experience as a GOP strategist runs deep, including time spent as the executive director of the California Republican Party in the early 1990s. He was an adviser for President George W. Bush and was tapped as senior adviser for John McCain’s bid for the presidency in 2008. He started his career working in the White House during the Reagan administration. He is a partner in Meridian Pacific Inc., a public affairs and political consulting firm based in Sacramento.
Peschong’s strategy, coupled with the state Republican Party’s fundraising challenges, enticed donors to give their money to the San Luis Obispo County organization.
Nearly all of the money is from diverse sources outside the area, with major contributions from pharmaceutical companies, Republican candidates in safe races, American Indian tribes in California and insurance companies.
Notable wealthy donors include billionaire Doris Fisher, 81, co-founder of Gap, and Charles Munger, entrepreneur and philanthropist, who is the father of Molly Munger, a civil-rights attorney who is funding Proposition 38. That measure to raise taxes for public education competes directly with Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative for education.
Peschong said the county GOP’s decision to play a key financial role in California politics was his idea — and that of the central committee — and not because of outside political pressure.
“We weren’t chosen; we made a decision to reach out to people,” Peshong said. “I came to the committee and talked to them about the possibility of making a bigger role.”
With the state Republican organization faltering, Peschong said he knew a concerted effort had to come from somewhere else.
Signs of trouble included the California Republican Party having to lay off staff and vacate office space in July because it was $850,000 in debt. The party organization’s ills include fundraising problems, the inability to mount a statewide election effort and, among other things, its $2.3 million failure to overturn the state’s redrawn political map.
The California Republican Party did not return calls from The Tribune.
While the state Republican Party has raised more than $7 million this year and spent about the same amount, it has only spent about $400,000 directly on state Assembly and Senate races.
Explaining his goal, Peshong said, “We are attempting to stop tax increases — trying to put a stop to a two-third Democratic majority. It all comes down to the counties.”
Peschong, driven by quiet confidence and a lucid passion, said persuading major donors to put their money into the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party wasn’t hard.
“We are on the map,” Peschong said.
Only two other county Republican committees have come close this year to the amount of money raised by the SLO County group: The San Diego County Republican Party has raised
$2.1 million, and Tulare County has generated more than $1.1 million.
By comparison, the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party has raised only $149,135.
For Democrats, political consultant Ross said, the state party still raises the most money.
When asked whether such numbers were normal for a county committee, Pat Harris, San Luis Obispo County Democratic Party chair, said, “That is surprising.”
Where money is going
The vast majority of the San Luis Obispo County GOP money is being spent on 10 tight Assembly and Senate races.
And it is Peschong who decides where that money goes.
In at least six of those races, the SLO County party has given the majority of the contributions to each Republican candidate, bringing their spending on par with their Democrat opponents.
For instance, in the race for the 8th Assembly District east of Sacramento, the San Luis Obispo Republican Central Committee gave $295,000 to Peter Tateishi, more than any other single donor and more than all the other donors combined. Tateishi is Rep. Dan Lungren’s chief of staff.
The candidates whom the San Luis Obispo County party chose to back embody a variety of Republicans, from moderate to conservative, Peschong said. What they have in common is their chance of winning.
“Everybody knows where the targets are in the state,” Peschong said. “It’s all about the two-thirds.”
The District 27 state Senate race between Todd Zink and Fran Pavley in Ventura County, Peschong said, is a case in point. Democrats and Republicans are spending furiously on that race because it could push the Democrats over the edge, Peschong said.
The San Luis Obispo party has spent more of its money on Zink than on any other candidate.
Ross said this strategy of funneling contributions through an obscure committee makes it harder to track because no one in Riverside or San Diego is going to look into money coming from San Luis Obispo County.