The Cheap Date That Was California's 2014 Race for Governor

2014's race for governor was the least expensive in California since 1978. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

It's a headline you almost never see in California politics, and probably won't see again for a very long time: a landslide win in a statewide election where campaign spending hit a record low.

In an era where political campaigns burn cash like a Winnebago guzzles gas, this was a contest won by a campaign that sipped its cash like a Toyota Prius.

Final documents filed both by Gov. Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, show the two men spent almost $13.3 million … combined … on their race for the top job in the nation's most populous state.

Kashkari accounted for slightly more of that spending than the victorious incumbent governor, spending $7.13 million to Brown's $6.15 million (a small amount of that total was spent in 2013). Official campaign finance documents were filed by both men over the course of the past 24 hours.

And it turned out to not be much of a race in the final analysis, with Brown coasting to a 20-percentage-point win on Election Day.

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Almost half of Kashkari's campaign cash, $3.1 million, came from the GOP newcomer himself. Brown, who also raised money for a campaign to pass two ballot measures, is still sitting on about $23.4 million between that campaign's bank account and the one for his re-election. What he'll do with that money remains the source of a great deal of speculation.

The race was never one that dominated the airwaves, which have become a mainstay of competitive California elections. In fact, campaign records show that Kashkari spent most of his money -- more than $4 million -- just to win the second spot on the fall ballot in the primary campaign against GOP challenger Tim Donnelly.

It can be said that the campaign mirrored Gov. Jerry Brown both personally and politically: frugal, spartan, simple. But there's no mistaking this for what it really was: a surprisingly cheap race.

How cheap? A review of campaign finance records and news accounts finds the last time a race for governor cost this little was in 1978, when Jerry Brown won a second term by defeating Republican Evelle Younger. That race was characterized in reports from the era as costing "less than $14 million."

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Source: California campaign records and news reports. (John Myers/KQED)

The chart above shows spending in each regular four-year gubernatorial cycle from 1978 through 2014. The total spending gradually rose for California campaigns from 1986 ($22.5 million) through 1994 ($46.1 million).

The race of 2002 was the first big cash bonanza, where Gov. Gray Davis alone spent $78 million. And no race (and maybe no race ever again) will look like the one in 2010, where GOP challenger Meg Whitman spent $178.5 million -- most of it her own money -- along with almost $37 million spent by Brown.

So what did it cost to get the votes? Take the total votes cast and the money spent, and you find the 2014 gubernatorial race cost about $1.81 per vote. That, too, is an amazing piece of data ... considering news stories from 1986 calculated the race that year (Gov. George Deukmejian beating Democrat Tom Bradley) at $3.04 per vote.

But comparing the 2014 gubernatorial spending with that from 1978 isn't really fair... to 1978. After all, adjusting for inflation, the final race of the '70s would have been equal to almost $51 million in campaign spending today.

No, a better comparison would be other 2014 races -- like the heated contest in Orange County for the 34th state Senate. Total cost, when you tally candidates and independent expenditures: about $11.1 million, close to the Brown-Kashkari battle. And we may see even bigger spending on the statewide level once final campaign reports are filed from the intense fight for state superintendent of public instruction.

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Bottom line: This was an anomaly of a gubernatorial race, something pointed out late last year in just how few votes were cast (which also broke a record that went back to, wait for it, 1978). The reasons for it? Well, maybe we'll get some insight on Saturday, when political consultants from both the Brown and Kashkari camp participate in a Q&A election post-mortem at UC Berkeley.

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