If dollars were votes, the local races for Congress and Assembly would be landslides.
Incumbent Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and state Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Silver Lake) all have substantial fundraising advantages over their rivals on the November ballot.
Challengers face long odds because of the power of incumbency and legislative districts that favor one party or the other, according to political observers.
"In politics, money is attracted to power," said Ethan Rarick, director of the Robert P. Matsui Center on Politics and Public Service at UC Berkeley. "If you have power and have a good chance of keeping it, you'll attract it."
Sherman, who was first elected to a district that includes part of Burbank in 1996, had nearly $2.8 million in the bank as of June 30 and has raised more than $1.2 million since his last election, according to the Federal Election Commission. His rival, businessman Mark Reed, has raised $18,000.
Schiff, seeking his sixth two-year term representing a district that includes Burbank and Glendale, has more than $1.8 million and has raised $878,000 since Jan. 1, 2009. His rival, businessman John Colbert, has raised $239,000. Both Colbert and Reed are Republicans.
Between the time Gatto won the Democratic Party nomination for Assembly in April and the June special election in which he won the right to finish the term of former Assemblyman Paul Krekorian, he received thousands of dollars from unions, Indian tribes and other heavy hitters in state politics. Gatto raised more than $38,000 between May 23 and June 30, according to state records.
Republican Sunder Ramani, who like Gatto raised hundreds of thousands of dollars before the primary and special election, raised $4,500 during the same period, according to the California secretary of state.
Colbert, a security software executive trying to topple Schiff, acknowledged the disadvantage. But he said money may not translate into votes.
"The politics of old are not necessarily dictating the outcome of elections today," said Colbert, who is running on a platform of fiscal restraint. "The mood of the electorate is going to determine the outcome."
And given the popular discontent with the economy, that mood may better serve his campaign, he said.
"It's wholly anti-incumbent in a big way," Colbert said.
Colbert has loaned his own campaign $150,000, according to federal elections records. Among his top donors are Timothy and Christine Leehealey of Newport Beach, each of whom have donated $4,800; and Paul Hacket of La Cañada Flintridge and Vernon Pruett of Glendale, each of whom gave $1,000.
Ramani received two donations between May 23 and June 30. The largest, $3,900, came from the owners of the Burbank Town Center.
Ramani could not be reached for comment. But recently he said his campaign has begun to crank up fundraising efforts.
Both Schiff and Sherman received hundreds of thousands of dollars from national political action committees, including the Lockheed Martin Corp. Employees' Political Action Committee, the National Assn. of Realtors PAC and the PAC for the American Assn. for Justice, an organization of plaintiffs' attorneys.
"We've had an increased nationalization of campaign finance for House seats," said John Pitney Jr., a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College.
He attributed the shift to campaign finance reform laws, which have encouraged political players to find creative ways, such as the formation of political action committees, to donate.
Schiff also received $5,000 from the Walt Disney Productions Employees PAC, while Sherman received contributions from entertainment figures, including two members of the Eagles.
Pitney and Rarick said district boundaries add to the steep climb for challengers. California is divided into safe legislative districts for candidates of one party or the other, both because the maps gerrymander and because like-minded people tend to congregate in the same regions, Pitney said.
Coastal California is reliably liberal; the Central Valley reliably conservative. The nonpartisan state commission now launching a redistricting effort has its work cut out, Pitney added.
"Even if you have a good-faith effort to draw competitive districts, in most cases, they still will be weighted one way or the other," he said. "In L.A., it is literally impossible to draw a district of parity."