(and other odious sources)
State elections in California have horrendous campaign finance rules. Unlike in federal elections, corporations can donate directly to candidates, incentivizing politicians to eschew small donors in favor of corporate money. A recent study found that from 2016 to 2019 in California, 81 percent of campaign contributions to candidates running for state office came from non-party organizations and individuals donating $1,000 or more. Only 3 percent came from individuals donating $250 or less.
Incumbents are running for reelection in 70 of the 80 races for State Assembly, with the general election on November 3 (two were defeated in the March 3 primary). I collected campaign contribution data for 64 incumbents and 33 challengers from FollowTheMoney.org. While most data for incumbents was available, data did not exist for many challengers, either because they hadn’t filed or had dropped out. As far as I can tell, the data I was able to collect is representative of the field.
Here’s the deal: Incumbents raise a massive amount of money from corporations and business groups regardless of the competitiveness of their races. These political offices are very directly bought, and incumbent campaigns are unnecessarily showered with money. The only conclusion is that donations flowing to incumbents are inverted fealty payments, reminders of who puts the State Assembly asses in the State Assembly seats.
Incumbents vs Challengers
For the primary plus the general election, the contribution limit for an individual, organization, or corporation is $9,400. Since corporations and business groups can easily dole out thousands at a time, while regular people cannot, it’s unsurprising that the majority of incumbent funding comes from non-individuals. The scatter plot below shows that incumbents, who have raised many times more money than challengers, get relatively little of their campaign funding from individuals, while most challengers who have raised a nontrivial amount rely largely on individual donors. Moreover, though not shown in the plot, individual contributions to incumbents tend to be very large. Total funds from individual contributions of $1,000 or more far surpass the amount raised from contributions under $1,000.
The amount of money contributed to an incumbent doesn’t seem to correlate with the competitiveness of the race either. The eight incumbents who ran unopposed in the primary have raked in an average of $580,000 so far (the average for all incumbents is $509,000). Speaker Anthony Rendon and Evan Low, who won their primaries by 25 points and 35 points respectively, have both raised over $1.1 million against poorly funded challengers. Democratic incumbent Rob Bonta, who won his primary against his Republican challenger with 89 percent of the vote, has raised over $900,000.
Funding for Incumbents
The biggest chunk of money raised by incumbents has come from corporations, business groups, and unions. Most of the “Uncoded” slice in the pie chart above seems also to come from corporations and business associations, but those donations have not yet been categorized by Follow The Money, meaning the proportion of business funding is probably closer to 50 percent. The “Other” slice is mainly political groups, nonprofits, and tribal governments. Again, this is all just money raised so far; donations will continue to pour into incumbent coffers until November 3.
The bar charts below show some of the main categories of non-individual contributors to incumbents from the labor and business sectors. Police unions and corrections officers’ unions — the only unequivocally nefarious “union” type I considered — have contributed over $1 million so far. While other labor funding is certainly significant, I don’t think it’s productive to discuss the aims and relative political significance of different unions here, and overall their impact is much smaller than the business sector anyway.
Among industries, the health industry is far and away the biggest funder of incumbents at over $3 million, nearly equaling total individual contributions. Donations come from hospital chains, medical associations, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and more. Also, much of the money from the insurance industry, shown separately, is from health insurance companies. Some slightly less monetarily significant industries not included in the chart are auto manufacturers and dealers, casinos, and general retail.
The table below lists some of the corporations that have contributed the most money to incumbents. Sempra Energy, the farcically evil owner of SoCal Gas, has contributed an average of over $5,200 to 51 of the 64 incumbents I looked at. Facebook cast a similarly wide net while JUUL took a more targeted approach. Again, these are direct contributions that candidates actively accept. There is no excuse, as is sometimes the defense with PACs and independent expenditures, that politicians don’t know or can’t help where the money is coming from.
What Must Change
The first takeaway I have is that we need major campaign finance reform and publicly funded elections (duh).
In Los Angeles City Council elections, for example, the contribution cap is $1,600 and there is a quite good city matching program for small donations. The majority of campaign contributions come from individual donors. While companies and rich, coordinated donors still skew things in favor of business-friendly politicians, it is nevertheless necessary to engage constituents and raise small donations, which gives challengers a chance to compete. It’s by no means a perfect system, but it looks like a model of democratic fairness in comparison.
Second, we need more people to challenge incumbents. In 2012, the State Assembly term limit was increased to six terms, or twelve years. In 2020, there were Democratic primary challengers to Democratic incumbents in only 12 of 55 races. The unusual election rules for State Assembly mean that the top two candidates in the primary, regardless of party or result, move on to the general election. This means challengers have a longer time to build support rather than being snuffed out early on.
The State Assembly is an extremely important body that is easy to overlook. Let’s take some seats on November 3. Let’s take the rest in 2022.
¹ Each Assembly district has very nearly the same population — around 465,000.
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