Capitol Alert

California Democrats’ House sweep fueled by $30 million cash advantage

Josh Harder Supporters Gather And Wait For Results

Josh Harder talks to supporters at his campaign party Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018 night.
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Josh Harder talks to supporters at his campaign party Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018 night.

As California Republicans grapple with their election day thumping, one of the causes they’ve consistently pointed to is money — a green flood of cash that propelled the blue wave of Democratic victories. When it comes to the state’s top congressional races, they’re not wrong.

On Friday, the final financial disclosures of the 2018 campaign cycle revealed just how big Democrats’ financial edge was.

In the contests for seven GOP-held congressional seats that Democrats won in November, the party’s candidates raised and spent more than $50 million, roughly $30 million more than the Republicans running in those races. And in all but one contest, the victorious Democratic candidate outraised his or her Republican opponent by at least $2 million over the course of the campaign.

The one exception: Rep. David Valadao, who raised about $900,000 more than his Democratic challenger, T.J. Cox. Valadao still lost, albeit by the slimmest of margins in a race that was resolved just this week.

Democrats’ fundraising advantage is particularly stunning given that all seven candidates were political newcomers, and five were taking on incumbent Republicans with lengthy political resumes, noted Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, which tracks elections in the state. Traditionally, incumbents enjoy a financial edge over challengers due to their established relationships with political interest groups in Washington and their power to influence policy.

It’s yet another sign of just how far the Republican party in California has fallen. “I’ve been running races in California for more than 30 years and once upon a time … it was assumed that Republicans had a significant funding advantage over Democrats,” said Sragow, who advised Democratic candidates in statewide races going back to the 1980s. “Well-heeled contributors (in the state], both individuals and business interests, supported Republicans.”

The rise of online fundraising and the state’s changing demographics have shifted that assumption in recent years. But 2018 seems to have shattered it altogether.

Democrats running for the state’s congressional seats this year benefited from a huge edge in small-dollar online fundraising, both from within the state and around the country. The party also recruited several wealthy self-funding candidates, including lottery winner Gil Cisneros, who dumped more than $9 million of his own money into the Orange County race to succeed retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce. Cisneros narrowly defeated former GOP Assemblywoman Young Kim .

On top of that, outside groups and Super PACs weighed in heavily in favor of Democratic House candidates in California. Labor unions, environmental groups, Democratic party committees and others spent $67 million in support of Democrats running for Congress in the seven targeted Republican districts. The Republican party and aligned groups spent less than half that: $33 million.

“The amount of money spent in these races was just crazy,” said Republican consultant Matt Rexroad, who advised Rep. Steve Knight’s reelection campaign in Los Angeles County. Knight was badly outspent by his Democratic challenger, nonprofit executive Katie Hill, $2.6 million to $8.1 million. Democrat-aligned groups, meanwhile, spent $13.5 million in that district, more than double what Republican-aligned groups spent. That was “a huge factor,” Rexroad said, pointing, in particular, to the $5 million that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super PAC, Independence USA, spent on ads attacking Knight and supporting Hill.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy also singled out the billionaire Republican-turned-Independent-turned-Democrat in his post-election analysis. “Michael Bloomberg spent more than $100 million” helping Democrats in the 2018 election, McCarthy said at a Nov. 14 press conference. “The money that he put into California, I think that is a contributing factor” in races the party lost.

Without Bloomberg’s Super PAC, Democrats would not have had quite the yawning spending edge against Knight, nor the similarly massive money advantage they enjoyed in their successful bid to oust Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and flip retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s San Diego-area seat.

But Bloomberg’s Super PAC did not spend any money in the other four races Democrats won. And Democratic candidates and supporting groups still outspent Republicans by millions of dollars in three of the four.

“There’s a high correlation between having more money and winning,” said Sragow. But other factors, including a favorable political climate and an attractive candidate, are also critical. Democrats, he said, “had all those things.”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.