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The Cost of a Seat: California Legislators Raise More than $1,000 a Day

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Senate President Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). (Max Whittaker/KQED)

Everyone knows it takes big bucks to run for office in California, but you might be surprised to learn that current members of the state Legislature competing for a seat in the 2014 election cycle had to raise on average more than $1,000 each day.

An analysis by the nonpartisan campaign finance organization MapLight.org of money raised from the beginning of 2013 through the November 2014 election shows it cost, on average, $1.1 million to win a seat in the state Senate. Successful members of the state Assembly raised slightly less -- around $837,000, on average.

If you break those sums down to a daily fundraising rate, senators had to bring in about $1,521 per day over the two-year cycle, while Assembly members needed to raise about $1,147 -- 365 days a year.

The numbers don't include three recent special elections, and they remain high even if you exclude some of the most competitive districts in 2014 and Democratic legislative leaders, who tend to raise far more to help prop up other members of their party or pet ballot measures.

KQED News also asked MapLight to crunch the average fundraising totals without the totals raised by State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), as much of their money is funneled back into boosting the chances of fellow Democratic candidates and not for their own election campaigns.


They found:

  • Assembly members raised an average of $818,560 or $1,121 per day when excluding Atkins' fundraising.
  • Senators raised an average of $1.06 million or $1,462 per day when you exclude De León's fundraising.

The fundraising averages also remained high when you disregard four highly competitive -- and expensive -- races fought in 2014: Assembly District 44, where Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks) raised $2.4 million to beat out Republican Rob McCoy; Senate District 34, where Republican Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Garden Grove) took in more than $3.5 million and pulled out a victory over former Democratic Assemblyman Jose Solorio; Assembly District 65, where Republican Assemblywoman Young Kim (R-Fullerton) raised more than $2 million in her successful fight against Democratic incumbent Sharon Quirk-Silva; and the nasty race between two Democratic Assemblyman, Richard Pan and Roger Dickinson, for the 6th Senate District seat in Sacramento. Pan won that race after raising $1.3 million.

Assembly members Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), Donald Wagner (R-Irvine) and Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) during debate over a new state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento on June 15, 2015.
Assembly members Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield), Donald Wagner (R-Irvine) and Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale) during debate over a new state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento on June 15, 2015. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

Excluding those races, Assembly members still raised an average of more than $800,000 and state senators took in more than $967,000 on average. The totals were slightly lower when you also exclude De León and Atkins.

And they don't even take into account the millions of dollars spent by independent outside groups to influence these legislative races, said campaign finance expert and Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson. Even though she studies these issues, Levinson said the numbers surprised her.

"That is an astronomical amount of money to raise every day," she said. "It's not just the absolute value of the money -- which is high -- but it takes a lot of time to raise money."

Levinson noted that there are "only 24 hours in a day," so fundraising must take attention away from other duties.

"You are either not sleeping or not legislating for a lot of time," she said.

You also have to factor in campaign contribution limits, Levinson added. In 2014, legislative candidates could receive a maximum of $4,100 from an individual or business entity.

"Because we have contribution limits, you have to go to a lot of different people and ask for money to raise those amounts -- so you are left, in effect, owing a lot of people," she said. "The other thing is, who are you talking to when you are fundraising constantly? Only people who can give you money."

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