SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Republicans have targeted Controller candidate Lanhee Chen — and money — in their bid to win back a statewide office in deep blue California.
The race typically draws little attention compared to other statewide offices, but this year, with no incumbent in the running, donations to Chen and Democratic nominee Malia Cohen have far exceeded the last election cycle.
Chen, a former political adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, has distinguished himself as an independent manager who can put the state’s finances in order. Cohen, who is a member of a state tax agency, says her previous role as chair of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ budget and finance committee makes her uniquely qualified for the job.
Chen has defied the path of recent Republican candidates in the heavily Democratic state. He’s raised more money than Cohen and his fellow Republicans who are running for state office. He won the June primary against four Democrats who shared their party’s vote.
That has fueled optimism that he could help his party weather California’s drought, but Chen faces strong headwinds. California has not elected a Republican nationally since 2006 and has nearly twice as many registered Democrats.
“It’s an uphill fight no matter what,” said Pete Peterson, who ran for secretary of state as a Republican in 2014 and now serves as the dean of Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He won 46% of the vote that year, the Republicans’ closest to victory in 16 years.
The Controller serves as California’s financial watchdog and has the authority to disburse state funds and audit government agencies. They also serve on more than 70 boards and commissions, including one that provides incentives for renewable energy generation and another that awards bonds to nonprofit colleges.
The candidates are vying to succeed Democrat Betty Yee, who has been in office since 2015 and previously served on the state Board of Equalization, which administers tax and fee programs. Cohen, the chairman of the board, hopes to follow the same path to the job.
Chen has never held elected office, which he says makes him less tied to any particular party, though he has advised on several GOP campaigns. He was appointed to a board overseeing Social Security by former Democratic President Barack Obama and is now a Public Policy Fellow on leave of absence at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
California’s high cost of living, public education, homelessness, public safety, gas taxes and state employment agency fraud are all among the issues a controller could address, Chen said.
“All of these challenges can be positively impacted in some ways by a controller focused on providing more transparency and accountability for how our state spends taxpayer dollars,” Chen said.
Cohen, meanwhile, sees an opportunity to expand the controller’s role by looking for patterns uncovered during agency audits and pushing for solutions to prevent problems from reoccurring.
Cohen said she wants “to be on the team that’s going to fill the gaps.”
Both pointed to the more than $20 billion in fraudulent unemployment benefits that California had given to criminals as evidence of how the state’s money could be better managed.
Chen prevailed in the June primary even though the Democrats collectively received more votes. Republicans tend to do better in the primary compared to the general election, said Mindy Romero, director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. Winning the area code in a divided field still has its perks.
“It gives the Republican candidate more exposure, raises his profile, and maybe he has a role in the party in the future,” she said.
By the September reporting deadline for campaign contributions, Chen had raised almost $1.4 million more than Cohen for the year.
Chen, who must try to keep former President Donald Trump’s supporters on his side while broadening his appeal, waited until after the primary to say he never voted for Trump.
In an ad, Cohen links Chen to “Trump Republicans” who are pushing to limit abortion access. Cohen’s campaign spokesman, Joe Armenta, suggested a Republican controller could “misuse funds for reproductive health services.”
But Chen said he supports access to abortion, and campaign manager Matt Ciepielowski said Chen had neither the power nor the inclination to restrict access to abortion.
Chen’s campaign, meanwhile, has published an online ad questioning Cohen’s financial management skills. It cites a Los Angeles Times report that a condo Cohen bought in 2006 was foreclosed on and her social media consulting firm’s license was suspended for tax reasons.
Defending against the Chen campaign’s criticism of its financial background, Cohen said the business license issue had been linked to a change of address and resolved.
“Some may try to use my experience of foreclosures during the financial crisis for political gain, but as I said in 2010, that’s why I ran for office,” she tweeted after the Times article was published. “I understand the pain that millions of Californians have endured and I have dedicated my career to making sure this never happens again.”
Sophie Austin is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. keep following her Twitter.