The well-heeled megadonors spending the most to defend Gov. Gavin Newsom in a near-certain California recall election hail from monied coastal enclaves, mansion-studded Silicon Valley and the toniest and most solidly Democratic parts of Los Angeles.
As for those big donors spending the most to boost the recall and kick Newsom out of the governor’s office — actually, that’s pretty much where they live, too.
A newly launched CalMatters live tracker of the $15.3 million and counting that has poured into either side of the recall shows that though California voters may be divided by geography and class, its major political donors are not.
The financial battle between the “pro” and “anti” campaigns was upended May 20 when Netflix CEO Reed Hastings — an on-again, off-again Newsom ally — pumped $3 million into the effort to beat back the recall. (Hastings gave $7 million to a committee backing a Democratic rival to Newsom in 2018.)
As a result, 95060 in Santa Cruz now sits at the top of the state’s biggest contributing ZIP codes.
The blue ZIP codes that dominate
That single seven-figure contribution, the largest of the campaign to date, only underlines two points that have been clear to political insiders for weeks now:
First, the California’s Democratic Party establishment is aggressively rallying to the governor’s defense.
Second, it has a lot of money to spend.
Hence, the other big donations on the anti-recall side come from Sacramento — home base of the state party and the fundraising arms of influential unions such as the United Nurses Associations of California — and from regular liberal super donors including ag and juice giant Stewart Resnick and from Democratic, deep-pocketed law firms.
The pro-Newsom side has brought in $10.6 million so far, and more support is on the way.
Next week, the California Labor Federation’s executive council is expected to vote on whether to take a position on the recall campaign. It’s a pro forma gesture; no one expects organized labor, a stalwart ally of the state Democratic Party, to sit out the recall.
Steve Smith, a federation spokesperson, said it’s too early to talk exact figures, but that the union umbrella group plans to make “a significant investment.”
As important as the money will be the organizational might. After an election cycle spent socially distancing, “there’s a lot of excitement amongst volunteers to get out going door-to-door again, and that will be utilized to the fullest extent for the recall campaign,” said Smith.
That should help the governor offset a potential lack of support from much of the state’s unionized workforce. Monday, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, which represents some 96,000 state employees, elected Richard Louis Brown as its new president. Brown told Politico the organization would not be supporting Newsom during the recall, a response to pay cuts the governor enacted in the early months of the pandemic.
On the pro-recall side, which has raised $4.7 million, the biggest donors are mostly in Southern California, a hodgepodge of familiar GOP backers and lower-profile millionaires who have had it with the governor.
They include John Kruger, co-founder of the men’s golf and tennis apparel company, TravisMathew, who lives in Huntington Beach but whose Biblically-named campaign committee, Prov 3:9, is headquartered in the San Gabriel Valley of east Los Angeles County. Kruger is the largest single contributor to the recall cause. A spokesperson for the committee told KQED that Kruger is supporting the recall because of California’s public health restrictions on religious gatherings.
Other big recall backers are real estate developer and Donald Trump megadonor Geoff Palmer, Silicon Valley venture capitalist Douglas Leone and Central Valley gasoline tycoon Stan Boyett.
Then, there’s the mysterious DGB Ranch, based in Los Angeles. Though campaign finance filings do not include much information about this entity that contributed $150,000 to the recall effort, there are clues hidden in public records.
The committee’s name matches a $250 campaign contribution to Los Angeles City Council candidate Jose Gardea in 2011. According to the city’s ethics commission, that committee’s address is located in central Los Angeles’ Hancock Park. County property records list the owners of the Tudor Revival mansion — more country club than ranch — as pediatrician Daniel G. Berdakin (initials, DGB) and his wife.
Berdakin, who spent $10,500 on Republican national political causes last year, did not respond to phone calls and emails made to his office, his lawyer and his family foundation.
Though some of the largest sources of cash to the Republican-supported recall effort come from purple-to-blue regions of the state, that doesn’t seem to be true of voters in general. Californians in counties that gave former President Trump a larger share of the vote in 2020 were much more likely to sign the recall petition, according to data from the California Secretary of State’s office.
Newsom backers pulling away in money race
Last week’s donation from Hastings also upset what had been a near balance in financial might between the two sides.
To see for yourself, consider the horizontal and vertical lines below:
Since the recall election became all but certain in late April, those opposing it have significantly ramped up their financial efforts. What remains to be seen is whether recall supporters can make up the difference — either later or by other means.
Unlike those fundraising in support of the governor, recall proponents have had to spend their war chest in two stages: first to get the recall on the ballot, then to wage the campaign itself. The first donor blitz was dedicated to accomplishing the first goal, but efforts toward the second will “start again very soon,” said Anne Dunsmore, who runs the largest recall fundraising committee.
She also downplayed the contribution from Hastings. “I’m surprised, with the trouble that (the governor)’s in, that it was only $3 million,” she said.
In the months to come, recall backers could also re-focus their donations to the campaigns of any one of the Republicans seeking to eject Newsom from office. But so far, they haven’t.
John Cox, known for losing badly to Newsom in 2018 and campaigning alongside a Kodiak bear named Tag in 2021, has raised more than $5 million for his bid — though most has come from his own bank account. Former Olympian and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner has raised about $212,000 so far, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has pulled in a little less than $120,000 and former Sacramento-area member of Congress Doug Ose reported about $47,000, including $32,400 from himself.
Unlike the general pro- or anti-recall committees, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money, candidates can’t receive more than $32,400 from a single donor. That means they’re more reliant on small-dollar donors — and some recall candidates are using a controversial tactic for repeat donations.
As first reported by Politico, online contributions made to both the Jenner and Ose campaigns through their websites are pre-checked to be charged repeatedly and to include “bonus” donations. Donors can opt out of both payment options, but only if they notice them. It’s a fundraising tactic made famous — and to consumer protection advocates, infamous — by the Trump campaign in 2020.
National Republican money fizzles
Last December, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee endorsed the recall effort. Huckabee’s political action committee threw $100,000 behind the effort. That was a sign to some political insiders that the state’s recall could become more than a mere California affair as national GOP donors and media personalities smelled “blood in the water.”
But that wave of red state cash has failed to materialize. Both sides have raised more than 90% of their itemized donations from within California, and the largest contributions from elsewhere have gone to defend the governor.
That includes $500,000 from the Democratic Governors Association. It also includes a $100,000 contribution from the law firm Baron & Budd, which represented 14 California cities and counties in a $1 billion settlement with PG&E for damages from catastrophic wildfires. The firm is based in Texas, meaning that the lion’s share of the campaign money coming out of the Lone Star State is backing the governor.
Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant and the publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks campaign finance data, said he sees no evidence that another wave of recall cash is on the way.
The worst of California’s pandemic seems to be over, the economy is rebounding, Newsom’s approval numbers are holding steady and no overwhelming favorite has emerged among the would-be replacement candidates. A statewide poll published this week by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found that 54% of likely voters approve of the governor’s job performance and that only 40% support removing him from office.
“If I’m a Republican donor who is acting reasonably rationally, I just don’t see an argument for throwing a lot of money into the recall side,” he said.
With U.S. Senate, House and redistricting battles across the country, there is no shortage of more likely GOP electoral opportunities, Sragow added. “Republicans want to run the country. I don’t think they think they can run California.”
CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.