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Campaigns launch stinging ad blitz in 24th District congressional race

In the final weeks of the crowded race for the 24th District Congressional seat, the top four fundraisers and presumed front-runners spent most of their plentiful campaign cash on advertising — and in some cases, stinging attacks — in an effort to sway voters in the June 7 primary.

Nine candidates are running to succeed retiring nine-term Democratic Rep. Lois Capps, and political observers say the race really boils down to four contenders: Democrats Salud Carbajal, a Santa Barbara County supervisor, and Helene Schneider, the mayor of Santa Barbara; and Republicans Katcho Achadjian, a three-term state assemblyman, and Justin Fareed, a Santa Barbara businessman and political newcomer.

Between April 1 and May 18, those candidates spent a combined $1 million on television and radio advertising. In a district with no incumbent and only a small Democratic lead in voter registration, the race has drawn national attention with conservative and progressive groups outside the district also throwing money into ads, banking that some savvy politicking could sway voters.

“It’s not a safe district,” said UC Santa Barbara political science professor Eric Smith, who’s been paying close attention to the race. “And since there’s the potential for a Republican win, we’re seeing plenty of outside money coming in.”

Smith noted the other five candidates — Democrats William Ostrander and Benjamin Lucas, independent candidates Steve Isakson and John Uebersax, and Republican Matt Kokkonen — have raised so little and drawn so few endorsements that they don’t stand a chance of becoming one of the two candidates who will go head-to-head in the Nov. 8 general election.

In California’s open primary, the two top votegetters, regardless of political party, head to a November runoff. Both parties are fighting for a knockout in the primary so the finalists will be two of their own, Smith said.

It’s not a safe district. And since there’s the potential for a Republican win, we’re seeing plenty of outside money coming in.

UC Santa Barbara political science professor Eric Smith

On the Republican side, Fareed has run a series of highly produced ads likening illegal immigration to leaky pipes and calling Achadjian a “political insider.”

Achadjian has ignored Fareed in his mostly upbeat TV spots, though he has defended himself against allegations made by Democratic political action committees that he doesn’t support women’s issues.

While the Democratic candidates have spent their TV money sticking mostly to the issues and their experience, mailers and mass emails tell a different story with both accusing the other of distorting their records.

And while Schneider continues to pull her own against Democratic Party favorite Carbajal, mailers and TV ads paid for by groups tied to the Republican Party are aimed at boosting Schneider’s profile to fracture the Democratic vote. The gamble is that, should a Democrat advance past the primary, the GOP wants that Democrat to be Schneider, whom Republicans view as a weaker general election candidate, Smith said.

Media blitz

Campaign finance reports released last week show that in the heated final weeks of the primary, between April 1 and May 18, the four candidates spent most of their money on advertising.

Carbajal leads in money raised and spent. Of the $543,259 he spent in the latest filing period, about 80 percent — $431,442 — paid for TV ads.

While Fareed’s fundraising slowed during the six-week period, he spent $244,535 on TV and radio ads, and another $48,510 on mailers, a combined 82 percent of his expenditures last period.

Achadjian ramped up spending last period with about 90 percent on marketing, including $25,078 on mailers and $287,732 on TV and radio ads.

Schneider spent $120,633 on a single TV ad and air time, only about 63 percent of her total expenses that period.

Achadjian and Fareed

In the Republican race, Fareed, 28, is selling himself as the “next generation” candidate, repeating in a series of 30-second ads that he’s not a “political insider.”

Though one ad flashes images of Democrats Carbajal and Schneider, Fareed specifically claims that Achadjian, a fellow Republican, has been in office “far too long” and is “bad on water.”

The ad makes the dubious accusation that Achadjian authored a bill “to shift control of water to his big business insider friends” — a reference to Assembly Bill 2453 that established the legal framework for a Paso Robles groundwater management district governed by an elected board of directors. Achadjian authored the bill at the request of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, but voters rejected creation of the district.

Smith said Fareed has been successful in raising substantial contributions from conservative PACs despite Achadjian being the clear favorite among the GOP establishment (he has the endorsements of every Republican state legislator, according to his website). Fareed’s message, Smith said, is that he can ride the wave of public discontent with Congress and woo conservatives who view Achadjian as too moderate.

“Fareed is the outsider and Katcho is the guy with experience,” Smith said. “And clearly that’s been a very effective message for him.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, 80 percent of Fareed’s campaign contributions have come from donors outside the district, which encompasses San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and a portion of Ventura County. Smith said Fareed has done a better job than Achadjian courting big-money interests in Washington, D.C.

He’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through conservative PACs as one of the Republican National Congressional Committee’s Young Gun Program’s “Contenders” — candidates in a close congressional race who “are on the path to developing a mature and competitive campaign operation,” according to the organization. Achadjian also made that list, another indication the Republican Party is encouraging donors to take notice of the 24th District.

Fareed has also attracted special interest money, including $5,000 from an Ohio coal mining company.

“The coal money, for example. That’s just hustling,” Smith said. “This is speculation, but I think the number of hours (Achadjian) spent going back to D.C. and talking to folks there is much less (than Fareed).”

Achadjian has mostly focused on the issues, such as supporting veterans and touting his record. However, in one ad, Achadjian’s campaign responds to a TV ad paid for by the House Majority PAC on Carbajal’s behalf. The PAC ad claims Achadjian voted to limit women’s access to abortion, birth control and maternity care, supported letting insurance companies charge women more and got a zero rating from Planned Parenthood.

Achadjian’s response, a TV ad featuring his daughter, calls the allegations “dirty Washington, D.C., politics” orchestrated by Carbajal and Democratic U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and says Achadjian has promoted women’s issues by supporting family leave, stopping workplace discrimination and enhancing campus safety for women.

Schneider and Carbajal

Though Carbajal has by far the most money to pump into advertising, he also has gained valuable support from PACs supporting Democrats.

Most recently, the CHC Bold PAC and the House Majority PAC, both tied to the Democratic Party, announced on May 17 their plans to spend $300,000 on TV spots. In addition to the one challenging Achadjian’s stance on women’s issues, the CHC Bold PAC paid for an ad to run on Spanish-language television in Santa Barbara that calls Achadjian and Donald Trump “two faces of the anti-immigration movement.”

Though the two Santa Barbara Democrats have not used TV ads to attack each other, they have used mailers to blast each other over local issues.

One such mailer funded by Carbajal’s campaign attacks Schneider for her position on Highway 101 widening in Santa Barbara, claiming that Schneider wanted to add an extra $28 million to the cost of the project and delay it on behalf “of a small number of wealthy donors.”

Carbajal is referring to Schneider’s support for widening the Union Pacific bridge by the Cabrillo Boulevard freeway on-ramps to mitigate what will become a traffic bottleneck. Schneider fired back in a news conference last week, saying Carbajal has also supported the bridge widening and is misleading voters.

While Carbajal is the clear party favorite — he’s been endorsed by Capps and the California Democratic Party — Republican PACs have targeted Schneider.

Recent mailers depict Schneider alongside Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders under the headline, “That smooth ’60s-style liberalism is back” and “Liberal Congressional candidate Helene Schneider and Bernie Sanders: Two liberal peas in a pod.”

Schneider has told The Tribune she supports Hillary Clinton for president. But Smith said the purpose of the mailers is twofold: while they will turn conservative independent voters away from Schneider, it could attract progressives toward her and cut into Carbajal’s support.

The mailers were paid for by the American Action Network, a center-right nonprofit formed by former Republican legislators and tied to the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The NRCC also funded an ad on TV and social media that compares Carbajal and Schneider. The ad claims Carbajal was “putting himself first” when he voted three times to increase his supervisor pay and voted to give himself a car allowance. The ad says Schneider opposes the expansion of offshore drilling and is far-left by supporting “universal (health) coverage for everyone.”

“My first reaction was that this was a Schneider ad,” Smith said. “Clearly, (the GOP) figures Carbajal is much more dangerous as an opponent in the general election, so we’re seeing them line up behind Schneider. It’s about who will be the most formidable opponent in November.”

The hope for Republicans, Smith said, is that Democrats will split over Schneider and Carbajal and two GOP candidates will end up as the top vote-getters and move on to the general election.

Still, Smith said he expects one Democrat and one Republican to advance — though it could be close.

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