Swalwell Wins Congressional Seat With Half the Money

Former Rep. Pete Stark spent twice as much money on his reelection campaign as his newly elected opponent Eric Swalwell, still lost by six percent.

The decisive factor was not finances, but lack of support from local political groups, said former lobbyist and campaign expert Dr. Elizabeth Bergman. Last Thursday, Swalwell was officially sworn in to Congress, representing the 15th Congressional District in the House of Representatives. Under California’s new top two primary system, the two candidates who receive the most votes in the June primaries compete against each other in the Nov election, regardless of their party affiliation. This allowed for young challenger and fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell to compete against the incumbent Pete Stark, who was first elected in 1972.

Pete Stark spent $1.3 million on his campaign last November, according to information released by the Federal Elections Committee. Eric Swalwell spent $779,634, a little more than half.

Swalwell raised the majority of his funds through individual donations, accounting for 87 percent of his total funds. Stark raised 65 percent of his funds from PAC contributions, campaign finance website Open Secrets said, compared to 21 percent raised through individual donors.

Despite the amount of money he spent, Swalwell beat Stark and received 53 percent of the vote. Bergman, who is a Political Science professor at CSU East Bay, thinks the effect of money in politics is overstated in the media.

“People give money to politicians who support their interests.” Interest groups can’t buy an election she said, as much as they might wish they could.

Bergman believes what gave Swalwell the advantage over Stark was the support he received from Bay Area newspapers.

The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Swalwell, and stated bluntly, “Stark’s disregard for the truth, not to mention basic decency, has been on embarrassing display in Campaign 2012.” The San Jose Mercury, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times were among other news organizations who gave their support to Swalwell.

Stark in turn lost the support of four out of five local Democratic groups, Bergman said, which was a significant setback for his campaign.

Swalwell capitalized on Stark’s lack of permanent residence in the Bay Area and his brash way of speaking and was effective, she said, making Stark look out of touch. “He was from a different era,” she said of Stark and he failed to adapt his rhetoric to the current political climate.

The top five industries to support Swalwell, most of them represented by individual donors, were from real estate, lawyers/law firms, retired individuals, pro-Israel individuals, PACs, and beer, wine & liquor, Open Secrets said. Stark received the majority of his donations from the health industry and unions.

Bergman said that the support these candidates received was not surprising given their backgrounds. Swalwell has been a deputy district attorney of Alameda County since 2006, and Stark has a record of being a “staunch unionist,” she said.

Under President Bill Clinton, when Bergman served as a lobbyist for the health care industry, Stark was popular in the industry for his ability to pass key health care legislation, she said. As chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health he was a key figure in crafting President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Swalwell’s support from the Pro-Israel lobby reflects his conservative standpoint, she said. Stark’s political positions have been identified as further on the left, compared to Swalwell who is seen as closer to the center and more conservative.

Bergman says, Stark has always faithfully toed the party and likely received the endorsement of the Obama, because of that. With Swalwell, no one knows whether he will vote faithfully with his party’s position or not.

“He’s not as reliable,” Bergman said. She speculated, “I don’t know if without the top two system, if Swalwell wouldn’t have run as a Republican.”

With the inclusion of more Republican areas like San Ramon and Livermore in the 15th District, she speculates that a Republican candidate could be viable in the future, but the change of the district’s population after redistricting and whether there has been a significant shift in party affiliation amongst its constituents would have to be seen.

The 15th District is currently made up of 48 percent Democrats, 23 percent Republicans, and 22 percent No Party affiliation, according to the California Secretary of State in October. With the shift in redistricting there was an increase in Republican affiliation by six percent and an equal decrease in Democratic affiliation by six percent, according to data from 2011 released by the California Secretary of State.