Officially, there are two names on the ballot in the race for a House of Representatives district covering much of western Riverside County.
But to win another two-year term, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, will have to overcome not only Democratic challenger Will Rollins, but at least two PACs targeting him in the Nov. 8 general election that might be flooding voters’ mailboxes, social media and TV screens with ads.
Having run in traditionally safe districts, Calvert, the Inland Empire’s longest-serving congress member, typically doesn’t attract much interest from outside groups looking for the most bang for their buck as they try to influence House races.
“Why is no one paying attention to Ken Calvert and Will Rollins?” said Lauren Harper, The Welcome Party’s co-founder, in describing the political action committee’s thinking. “We’re like, dude, (Calvert) is beatable.”
Rollins, a former federal prosecutor, is “someone who could really win over independents and Republicans,” Harper said. “Without independents or Republicans, Rollins will not be able to win … But we know that he can pick up swing voters because of who he is as a candidate and Calvert’s vulnerability.”
Calvert “knows he’s in trouble,” said Joe Jacobson, Progress Action Fund’s executive director. “Calvert is trying to now position himself as a moderate. And we just think that is absolutely ridiculous (and) nobody should believe (that).”
In an emailed response, Calvert said: “It’s no surprise that extreme liberal groups are trying to defeat me because of my opposition to President Biden’s inflationary agenda.”
Rollins said via email that he “welcome(s) support from pro-democracy organizations on both the left and the right because they are critical to flipping this district.”
But while he’s grateful for the PACs’ support, “no candidate should ever need it in the first place,” Rollins said. “We need to get money out of politics entirely, which is why I support banning all members of Congress from trading stocks, banning dark money and banning corporate campaign contributions.”
Rollins also is part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program, which provides fundraising and other support to Democratic House candidates. Rollins earned a spot in the program “by surpassing aggressive goals for grassroots engagement, local support, campaign organization, and fundraising,” committee spokesperson Maddie Mundy said via email.
Calvert’s supporters include former President Donald Trump, who endorsed the congress member in March.
He’s also been endorsed by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, whose California state director called Calvert “a strong supporter of small business …. (who) will continue to stand up for issues that small businesses care about like reining in regulations and protecting tax cuts.”
A congress member since 1993, Calvert has never lost a re-election bid.
He won 57% of the vote in beating Liam O’Mara two years ago and since 2008, when Calvert beat Bill Hedrick by just 2 percentage points, Calvert has never received less than 55% of the vote in a general election.
Nonpartisan political forecasters such FiveThirtyEight and Sabato’s Crystal Ball expect Calvert to win re-election in November. But, even in a year where Republicans are favored to take control of the House, Jacobson and Harper think Calvert is vulnerable.
Political redistricting erased Calvert’s current district, where Republicans held an edge in voter registration.
Instead, Calvert is running in the redrawn 41st Congressional District, where Democrats outnumbered the GOP by 323 voters as of May 23. He’s also going from a district that Trump won by 7 percentage points to a district Trump won by just 1 point, according to elections expert Dave Wasserman.
The 41st, which stretches from western Riverside County to the Coachella Valley, includes GOP-friendly cities such as Canyon Lake, Indian Wells, Norco, Menifee and Wildomar.
But it also has increasingly blue Corona and a strong LGBTQ community in Palm Springs. While Calvert voted this summer to codify federal protections for same-sex marriage, Rollins, who is openly gay, plans to use Calvert’s past opposition to same-sex marriage and his other votes on LGBTQ matters against him.
Regarding same-sex marriage, Calvert campaign spokesperson Jason Gagnon referenced Calvert’s quotes in a Coachella Valley media outlet in which he said: “The courts resolved it, and it’s the law of the land, so I don’t support going back and revisiting that. Gay marriage is now legal, and I’m fine with that.”
In the June 7 primary, Calvert and Republican John Michael Lucio received a combined 53% of the vote while Rollins, Democrat Shrina Kurani and progressive independent Anna Nevenic got roughly 47%. Kurani endorsed Rollins shortly after the primary.
Jacobson’s PAC reported almost $922,000 in donations between January 2021 and June 2022, federal campaign finance records show. WelcomePAC, which is affiliated with The Welcome Party, raised $1.2 million between August 2021 and July of this year, according to records.
Jacobson said his PAC has spent about $50,000 to date in the 41st and plans to spend $100,000 to $200,000 in the district. Harper said WelcomePAC has spent more than $100,000 so far in the 41st.
Between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, Calvert raised $2.35 million and had $1.39 million in cash on hand. Rollins raised $1.4 million and had more than $478,000 in remaining cash during that same timeframe.
412 Church Temecula Valley Pastor Tim Thompson, a Christian conservative activist who has denounced state COVID-19 mandates and how public schools address the LGBTQ community, sex education and lessons on race and U.S. history, will figure prominently in Progress Action Fund’s attacks, Jacobson said.
Calvert and Thompson, who hosts a YouTube-broadcast show that features conservatives and GOP elected officials, are “basically working hand-in-glove on making sure that LGBTQ people aren’t treated with the respect and dignity they deserve,” Jacobson said.
Jacobson added: “I think the voters of the district can see right through Calvert because you can’t just wash away 30 years of prejudice or bigotry and a relationship with somebody as notorious as Tim Thompson by just changing your opinion (with a) snap of the fingers.”
In an emailed statement, Thompson, who is involved with an effort to elect Christian conservatives to southwest Riverside County school boards, said that his past statements cited by Jacobson’s PAC “have been taken out of context and grossly misrepresented in an effort to slander me.”
“They are showing themselves to be completely intolerant of our Christian values, in an attempt to silence us by labeling us as transphobic, anti-black, homophobic, extremists,” Thompson added. “We will not be silent. People of faith have a right to express their views without being ridiculed.”
Calvert, who has appeared on the pastor’s show to discuss national security issues, met Thompson “a number of years ago” when Thompson was in Washington D.C., for an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Gagnon said.
Defeat Seditionists, a PAC tied to Progress Action Fund, has spent roughly $25,000 on anti-Calvert ads. It’s behind a 30-second video posted on YouTube that calls Calvert a “criminal, hypocrite (and) traitor.”
The ad references a 1993 incident in which Corona police found Calvert in a car with a prostitute. He was never charged with a crime.
It also touches on Calvert’s past real estate deals. The congress member has faced questions over whether he profited from selling land near projects for which he sought federal funding.
Calvert has denied wrongdoing. In 2007, the House ethics committee found Calvert did not have a financial interest in requesting federal money for a Corona transit center in the vicinity of some of his land holdings.
Gagnon also referred to a May 2006 article in The Press-Enterprise “which showed Ken Calvert’s accusers got their facts wrong” and a Press-Enterprise editorial — both posted on Calvert’s House website — that defended the congress member and warned “sounding false alarms of corruption only breeds more cynicism about government.”
Jacobson’s PAC and WelcomePAC also are focused on Calvert’s actions before and after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. Calvert, who denounced the violence but stopped short of calling it an insurrection, joined 105 House Republicans in supporting Texas’ longshot bid to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to reject presidential election results in four swing states.
He later voted against certifying Arizona’s and Pennsylvania’s results. Calvert has said he did so because of unanswered questions about what happened in those states’ elections.
Gagnon said Rollins and the PACs supporting him “share a lot in common. They aren’t from Riverside County, and they are both spreading misinformation.”
Matt Gaze, Rollins’ campaign manager, said via email that Rollins “is the only candidate in this race who spent the last five years working in federal law enforcement to protect every person in Riverside County. It’s clear from Calvert’s continued attacks on the FBI and (Department of Justice) that he will never believe people like Will are a part of our community.”
Jacobson, who is based in Los Angeles, said he is frequently in the 41st District and is familiar with the area through his past job with a labor union.
If Calvert “(hadn’t) subscribed to the Trumpist agenda that is quite literally subverting our elections and (is) creating a lot of disinformation about what is going on in American democracy … we wouldn’t be here,” Harper said.