California's 2014 Statewide Campaigns Top $226 Million

It was a low turnout election year, but that didn't stop tens of millions of dollars from being spent on campaigns. (Getty)

If you think $226.5 million, the amount of combined spending in 2014 on statewide candidate races and ballot measure campaigns, is a lot of money, consider this: It was kind of a quiet year.

In other words, you ain't seen nothing yet. But more on that in a moment.

The total comes from hundreds of pages of campaign reports filed over the course of the last few hours and days.  It represents both the expenditures made by candidates pursuing eight statewide offices on the Nov. 4 ballot ($35.5 million) and by the committees formed to support or oppose the two statewide ballot measures in June and the eight statewide measures in November... plus a few other expenses related to statewide efforts ($173.3 million).

It does not include the millions of dollars spent on races for the California Legislature or for state seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. And a caveat: It may still not include a few dollars here or there spent by several small and quiet groups to influence statewide races in 2014.

The big dogs in California's most recent election cycle were the two health care initiatives on the fall ballot: Proposition 45, a proposed change in health insurance regulation; and Proposition 46, a smorgasbord of everything from doctor drug testing to a looser cap on cash awards in malpractice lawsuits.

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Combined, spending on those two initiatives accounted for $127 million, about 56 cents of every dollar in the statewide campaign total.

The numbers, when added all together, are impressive for two elections which both made history for how few voters actually cast ballots.

They are also hard to digest in the aggregate. Some campaigns were big and full of cash for television ads, mailers and campaign consultants.  Some, though, were pretty small as statewide efforts go.

So, let's sample some of the more interesting morsels of information gleaned from the new filings:

  • Gov. Jerry Brown may have received a lot of press attention for being frugal in his campaign spending, but the real award goes to state Treasurer John Chiang. The Democrat who successfully navigated the transition from two terms as state controller into winning the job of state banker spent a paltry $24,293 in all of 2014. Divide that by the number of votes Chiang received in both the June and November elections, and you find that the state's top money man spent less than four-tenths of a penny per vote. Frugal, indeed!
  • On the other hand, the most surprising spending ... at least until you think about what was really going on ... was that of Attorney General Kamala Harris. The Democratic incumbent faced a never-heard-of GOP opponent, Ron Gold, and handily won a second term. But she sure did spend a lot of money relative to her fellow incumbent officeholders who were similarly unchallenged: $3.66 million. What did she spend most of it on? TV ads and political consultants. What was she doing? Probably boosting her name ID for -- well -- a race like the one she's now running.
  • One of the biggest dramas of 2014 played out during the early summer, when Democrats Betty Yee and John Pérez were locked in a close battle for second place in the race for state controller, eventually won by Yee. Final records show that Pérez spent almost $3.1 million in his losing effort -- while Yee, who won in November, and GOP challenger Ashley Swearengin spent a combined $3.2 million in the fall contest.
  • Some of the biggest winners in the world of political consulting in 2014 were the partners of a San Francisco-based Democratic firm, SCN Strategies: Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Dan Newman. Their firm represents three of the biggest names in Democratic politics -- Brown, Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom -- and thus profited from advising those politicos. But SCN also received a little something from the ballot measure committee formed by the governor to pass Prop. 1 and Prop. 2: a $25,000 "win fee" paid in mid-December. When you consider that members of the winning New England Patriots received a little something extra for their big victory, too, maybe it's not so surprising to do the same for top hired political guns.
  • Say what you will about the governor's famous dog, Sutter, but the Welsh corgi knows a thing or two about travel. Tucked away in the campaign report of the political action committee formed by the California Chamber of Commerce to boost Brown's ballot measures was an unusual expense: $3,504.24 for the "Bark The Vote" campaign trip. Not familiar with that one? That was Sutter, accompanied by Democratic campaign aides, barnstorming the state to pose for photos and spark some PR for Prop. 1 and Prop 2. The money was spent on a Hertz rental car and for lodging at several hotels, including more than $1300 for Democratic officials at Santa Barbara's Bacara Resort & Spa.
  • As proof that the biggest money is often spent outside of the official committees controlled by candidates -- committees with rather small contribution limits in a state as big as California -- consider the bitter fight in 2014 waged for superintendent of public instruction. Incumbent Tom Torlakson pulled out a 4 percentage point win over challenger Marshall Tuck, but the the campaign reports filed by the two men mask the size of the battle. The two men spent a combined $4.82 million on their race (Tuck slightly more than Torlakson), but the real money was spent by groups who saw the schools chief race as a proxy for everything from debates over teacher tenure to charter schools and more. The pro-Torlakson independent expenditure campaign, largely financed by the California Teachers Association, spent almost $7.7 million. The pro-Tuck independent group, financed by a handful of wealthy self-described education reformers, spent just north of $10 million. Put it all together, and you have a $22.6 million fight over a position that doesn't actually have full control over California's education policy and rules.

Again, this was a relatively quiet election cycle for California. Almost all of the statewide candidate races were a bit on the ho-hum side, and there were only two real barn burners in the world of propositions.

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As such, expect the 2016 cycle to be more costly... a lot more costly. Take the newly fermenting U.S. Senate race and throw in a big pinch of ballot measure mania -- plastic bags, legal pot, additional taxes, and who knows what else -- and the numbers from last year may soon seem quite puny.

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