Republicans have filed complaints accusing the state Democratic Party and Secretary of State Debra Bowen of using "illegal campaign tactics" to influence voters to cast a ballot for late Sen. Jenny Oropeza in the 28th Senate District.
Democrat Oropeza died unexpectedly last month but remains as a candidate on the Nov. 2 ballot. The California Democratic Party recently sent Democratic and Decline-to-State voters in the district a letter from Secretary of State Debra Bowen outlining what would happen if Oropeza wins.
"Jenny Oropeza's name is on the ballot. You have the right to vote for her," the letter reads. "If you do, and she wins, there will be a special election called. You will then be able to thoughtfully consider who will represent you in the Senate for the next four years."
The letter, which was not sent on secretary of state letterhead, is titled "Election Information." The envelope is marked as "Important information from the secretary of state," but includes a disclosure that it was paid for by the Democratic Party.
Republican candidate John Stammreich and the California Republican Party argue that the letter violates a section of the penal code that prohibits publishing campaign advertisements that are false or fraudulent depictions or representation of public documents. Both parties have filed complaints asking state attorney general and Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley to immediately launch an investigation.
"(The) communication constitutes a blatant attempt to deceive the public to engage in partisan political campaigning to ensure that a Democrat is elected at a special election in the unfortunate and untimely circumstances of Senator Oropeza's unexpected passing," CRP Chairman Ron Nehring wrote in a complaint.
Jason Kinney, campaign adviser to the Senate Democratic caucus, dismissed the complaint as "laughably frivolous and not worth the paper it's printed on."
"The mail piece in question clearly identifies the sender as the California Democratic Party, it bears no seal, letterhead or formal markings and no one in their right mind would or could interpret this letter as an official document. Of course, given the way the polls have been looking, I'll allow that the Chair of the California Republican Party might not currently be of right mind," he wrote in an e-mail.
Stammreich, pointing to a similarly worded letter Democrats have sent from the CDP's general counsel, blasted the Bowen letter as "abhorrent behavior" that is part of a "coordinated conspiracy" to influence election results in the heavily Democratic district.
"This is wrong. This is the chief elections officer who is supposed to be safeguarding the election process. Instead she is giving her name and her official title to illegally sway the outcome of this election," he said in a conference call with reporters.
Bowen's political consultant Steve Barkan said Bowen was not asked to approve the content of the mailer.
"She provided a quote which is a simple statement of fact ... I don't see how anyone would be misled by the mailer, now that I have seen it, since it clearly is identified as being from the California Democratic Party," he wrote in an e-mail.
Violation of the code in question is a misdemeanor offense punishable by jail time and fines of up to $50,000. Charles Bell, an attorney for the Republican Party, would not rule out a challenge of election results based on the complaint.
"It's certainly possible that illegal conduct affecting the vote could result in such a challenge. I think we'll have to evaluate that in light of any other irregularities that may occur in the election as well," Bell said.
If Oropeza is elected, the special election to fill her seat would likely be the state's first primary conducted under the new "top two" system, meaning two Democrats could face off in a run-off election for the seat.
Read the California Republican Party complaint here.
This post was updated to reflect the CDP disclosure on the envelope.