Multimillionaire Democratic Candidates Locked in California Feud [Corrected and Updated]

A close look at the California district where the DCCC just backed Gil Cisneros finds a mess very much of the party’s own making.

Gil Cisneros, a Democratic congressional candidate, outside his field office in Brea, Calif., April 20, 2018. Cisneros earned the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Wednesday over rival Democrats in his Orange County district. (Rozette Rago/The New York Times)
Democratic congressional candidate Gil Cisneros poses outside his field office in Brea, Calif., on April 20, 2018. Photo: Rozette Rago/The New York Times/Redux

When Karen Thorburn checked messages on her home answering machine on a Wednesday evening in early April, one of them was not like the others.

It was a groggy-sounding voice, leaving a short but to-the-point message for her husband, Andy, who is running for Congress in California’s 39th District. “Hi Andy. It’s Gil Cisneros. I’m gonna go negative on you,” the man said, before going silent for an awkward four seconds and hanging up.

Thorburn’s campaign provided the voicemail to The Intercept. “It sounded like him to me!” Karen Thorburn said. Cisneros did indeed go negative, targeting Andy Thorburn’s business record in a mini-site labeled “Andy Thorburn Tax Evader.” Thorburn, 74, an insurance executive, had left behind numerous plump targets during his long business career, tucked away in lawsuits, offshore filings, and securities documents.

Cisneros’s campaign manager, Orrin Evans, said prior to publication of this article that questions about he voicemail were “ridiculous,” but after it ran, Evans denied that Cisneros had left the message, stating that the voicemail “is clearly not Gil.”  The campaign sent a letter to The Intercept from an attorney calling the claim “defamatory.” They followed up with a voice identification analysis performed on behalf of the campaign by the Sylint Group, a cybersecurity firm. The company found that a “casual audio examination provides some similarities to an audio listener,” but that a “digital and analog analysis” indicated the voice did not belong to Cisneros.

Voice identification experts reached by The Intercept said that a credible scientific analysis wasn’t possible with such a short voicemail. Ed Primeau, one of the top voice identification experts in the country, said that federal court guidelines, for instance, require a minimum of 20 words to have been spoken, dismissing the Sylint analysis. “It’s non-scientific, it’s very opinionated, and it’s exactly what the person who hired them wanted,” he said.

The original version of this story reported as fact that the voice on the answering machine belonged to Cisneros, based on comparisons made by Intercept reporters and others of Cisneros’s voice to that on the recording, but after further examination, we have concluded that there is room for doubt about who left the voicemail. Primeau, for example, said after reviewing the tape that it is his “subjective opinion” that the voicemail was left by somebody other than Cisneros.

More accusations have flown. The Sylint Group, in its analysis, said that the recording was edited from two different machines and spliced together. Karen Thorburn rejected that claim, releasing a video of herself playing the voicemail to prove that it was not doctored from its original form.

The ongoing battle between Cisneros and Thorburn over the voicemail is the latest in a contest that has become increasingly heated. The opposition research on Thorburn was meticulous and, according to the website made public by Cisneros, it was paid for by his campaign. The formatting and style of the opposition research looked similar to a document the DCCC dumped earlier this year on another Democratic candidate for Congress, Houston’s Laura Moser.

Initially presented as “Offshore Andy,” the mini-site, in a cached version, was published with the disclosure: “Paid for by Committee Name Here,” which led DCCC critic Howie Klein to suggest the DCCC itself had produced the oppo.

Asked if the DCCC created the site and handed it off, DCCC Communications Director Meredith Kelly responded, “This is the most baseless and embarrassing request that I’ve received from The Intercept yet, and that says a lot. Please quote me on that.” Evans would only say, “These questions are ridiculous.”

It is also possible that Cisneros paid a consulting firm to do the research, and that the firm used a boilerplate disclaimer. Either way, the DCCC had presented Thorburn with polling showing that the opposition research would damage him in the general election, according to the New York Times, so the party was, at a minimum, aware of it.

The oppo dustup aside, the DCCC does not pretend to be neutral in the race and officially picked its candidate in the district on April 18, naming Cisneros to its coveted “Red-to-Blue” list, which is tantamount to an endorsement. Cisneros’s attack on a fellow Democrat two months before the primary may seem awkward, but California’s unusual primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party, may have encouraged him to engage in desperate measures and for the DCCC to get involved.

Royce’s retirement in a diverse district that Hillary Clinton won handily has thrown the race into chaos. With four Democrats and three Republicans running, and polling showing a complete jumble, it is possible for two Republicans to sneak into the top two — a nightmare scenario for the DCCC. Not only would that guarantee a Republican victory but — far worse from party operatives’ perspective — it would be blamed on the party. If a candidate loses an election, that’s the candidate’s fault. If there are no candidates on the ballot, that’s the party’s fault.

So the DCCC has been pushing hard to winnow the field and nudge Cisneros, a multimillionare who has dumped $2 million of his own money into his campaign, onto the general election ballot. Thorburn has amassed a war chest with $2.33 million of self-funding and will likely attack Cisneros before the primary. Another candidate, Tran, has given herself half a million dollars as well.

Watching all this from the sidelines is Sam Jammal, a former Obama administration official and the only major Democrat running who lives in the district and isn’t funding his campaign with his own personal wealth. “People have been bombarded with ads and nobody’s buying it,” Jammal told The Intercept. “They want someone who knows where they came from and will fight for them.”

Cisneros is a Navy veteran and, until recently, a former Republican, both characteristics that the DCCC tends to view as favorable electoral assets that will appeal to independents and moderate Republicans. But otherwise, his main credential is his money — which he won through the lottery.

Cisneros didn’t win a metaphorical lottery, like being born the child of a tycoon, but an actual Mega Millions lottery, pocketing $266 million, which he and his wife have showered on the Democratic Party in recent years. Many of those same party regulars and advocacy groups that Cisneros helped fund have endorsed him in his campaign. By backing Cisneros, the DCCC is making a bet that, win or lose, those dollars will keep coming from its handpicked selection — even if there is nobody outside the Cisneros family who genuinely believes a lottery winner can pull off a general election victory in the district.

The DCCC’s usual methods of persuasion to push Democrats out — promises of future support, threats to spend overwhelming amounts of cash — don’t work on someone like Thorburn, who has millions of his own to draw from and little interest, at 74, in a state Senate seat. The only option left is to go negative.

Cisneros’s research includes allegations that Thorburn’s company is registered in the U.K. territory of Guernsey, a known tax haven featured in the Paradise Papers (Thorburn has contended that this was for regulatory rather than tax reasons, so he could sell individualized insurance products worldwide), and that Thorburn had a business relationship with the former CEO of failed subprime lender Option One Mortgage. It even claims that Thorburn evaded personal income taxes for several years.

Thorburn has put up a “setting the record straight” website to rebut Cisneros’s claims. “We’ve been able to have conversations with people and get the truth out,” said Nancy Leeds, campaign manager for Thorburn. “It’s turning people off to Gil.” But Thorburn’s campaign is rumored to be planning an attack on Cisneros within days, though the campaign insisted that this would be a small part of its overall message. “We would never lie about someone, but Gil is spending a lot of money to show his record, and we think the voters should see a true version of it,” Leeds said.

The tension stayed under the surface at a relatively lighthearted campaign forum for young voters Tuesday night in Fullerton, organized by financier and environmentalist Tom Steyer’s group NextGen America. Cisneros, Thorburn, and Jammal lined up with one another on issues like single-payer health care, “sanctuary cities,” and net neutrality. When asked which endorsement he’s most proud of, Thorburn answered “I’m proud of the fact that the Bernie Sanders group, Our Revolution, endorsed me, because I’m the progressive candidate in this race.”

But how Thorburn won that endorsement itself is a window into the difficulty national progressive groups are having in separating the progressive wheat from the come-lately chaff. According to published reports from Thorburn’s campaign, Our Revolution Orange County endorsed him on January 25, 2018. That is the first day for which there is any evidence available of the group’s existence. There’s no evidence of Our Revolution OC communications on Facebook or Twitter before that date.

The national chapter of Our Revolution endorsed Thorburn a few weeks later, on February 16. In general, Our Revolution takes cues for endorsements from its local chapters.

In Facebook messages between the group and a rival candidate’s campaign, Our Revolution OC admitted that it never held a meeting prior to that endorsement. “At the moment, we are currently lifting the local group off the ground,” read a message from Our Revolution OC on February 22, nearly a month after the Thorburn endorsement, “but are planning to have the inaugural meeting in late March or early April.” Asked how there could be an endorsement without a meeting, Our Revolution OC wrote that they were obligated to follow the national organization’s wishes. “Due to their recent endorsement of Andy Thorburn we cannot undermine their decision.” Thorburn’s endorsements page currently lists only the national Our Revolution backing, not the local OC chapter.

The Thorburn campaign contended that three separate Our Revolution chapters endorsed him. However, the other two, in Long Beach and Santa Ana, are located outside the district. Brendan Wiles, deputy campaign manager, said that the campaign reached out to the OC Our Revolution group and was told by the group that nobody else had contacted them, thus earning the endorsement. León Cisneros of Our Revolution OC (no relation to Gil) did not respond to a request for comment.

Thorburn also has the backing of the California Nurses Association, which is closely aligned with Our Revolution. Dave Jacobson, a consultant for Thorburn, has also delivered CNA endorsements for several of his other clients this cycle: congressional candidate Harley Rouda, insurance commissioner candidate Ricardo Lara, and lieutenant governor candidate Ed Hernandez.

Whenever actual human beings are asked about the 39th, Sam Jammal’s name frequently comes up. Even in the New York Times’s profile of the race, focused mainly on Tran and Cisneros, the only voter questioned supported Jammal. The former congressional aide and Obama administration appointee has been endorsed by the Tri-County Democratic Club, the district’s largest; the CA-39 Indivisible chapter; and the Orange County Young Democrats. “I’m not a fan of millionaires coming into the district,” said Tim Phan, activism director for the OC Young Democrats. “The locals are favoring Sam.”

Jammal, who has raised a respectable $433,000 but has none of the resources of his millionaire opponents, needs to hope for a scenario like the 1998 California gubernatorial primary, in which Jane Harman and Al Cecchi spent millions attacking each other, leading Gray Davis to quietly win the race as the positive alternative. Jammal has spent a fraction of the combined $3.3 million that Thorburn and Cisneros have already dropped, yet public and internal polling shows a toss-up. “I have a golden opportunity because these guys haven’t clicked,” Jammal said.

Jammal is clearly attempting to differentiate himself from his rivals from a class standpoint. “We need new voices who have walked in our shoes,” Jammal said at the candidate forum in Fullerton. “We don’t have enough folks in office that feel the same experiences as the rest of us.”

Correction: May 1, 2018
This story was updated to reflect the possibility that the person on the voicemail provided by Thorburn is not Cisneros, as well as to include a rebuttal and a video posted to Twitter by Thorburn.

Top photo: Democratic congressional candidate Gil Cisneros poses outside his field office in Brea, Calif., on April 20, 2018.

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