OAKLAND — Millions of dollars are pouring into California recall coffers, crystallizing two dynamics: Republicans can’t keep up with Gov. Gavin Newsom, and GOP establishment favorite Kevin Faulconer is outdrawing other challengers.
The Democratic governor has benefited from blue-state interests coalescing around his defense, to the point that even onetime Democratic critics like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have given him large checks.
The big-donor results so far have affirmed the prevailing assumptions that Newsom would massively outraise his opponents as the incumbent Democrat with a strong chance of survival and no donor limits. They have also shown that the California Republican donor class so far sees Faulconer, a former San Diego mayor, as the party’s best shot at winning a statewide seat for the first time in 15 years.
Among other Republicans, businessman John Cox has primarily self-funded his effort with several million dollars, while former Rep. Doug Ose and reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner have struggled to gain traction in the fundraising department.
“Clearly the expected players are stepping up to defeat the recall and there’s an impressive amount of money being raised, I think pretty much on script,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant and publisher of the California Target Book, a handicapper of state political races.
Initial public polls serve as one scorecard of where things stand in the emerging recall campaign, but contributions reflect donor confidence in their candidates’ chances.
As the recall election comes into focus, Newsom this month parlayed his massive fundraising advantage into his first statewide ads, one touting his proposal to hand out stimulus checks and two others lambasting the recall as a Trump-aligned effort to upend California values. An independent committee backed by real estate interests has gone to bat for Faulconer with nearly $2 million in ads to counter Newsom’s message.
Because the recall is a special election, typical donation ceilings do not apply to Newsom’s campaign drive. The governor has been able to marshal a formidable fundraising network that has helped Democrats cement total control of California politics.
Supporters have so far poured more than $17 million into Newsom’s recall war chest. Nearly half has come from technology industry players and organized labor. Prominent political players like the real estate industry, Native American tribes and law firms have supplied millions more.
Among contenders to replace Newsom, Faulconer has pulled in by far the most large donations. He has piled up more than $2 million from a roster of supporters that includes prominent donors who have in past cycles sent money to the California Republican Party, Republican candidates and conservative positions on ballot initiatives. A realtor and Republican mainstay, Gerald Marcil, has launched an independent expenditure committee backing Faulconer as Marcil family members have maxed out to Faulconer.
Faulconer has been working for months to frame him as the only Republican capable of building a winning coalition in deep-blue California. He quickly rolled out endorsements from numerous Republican elected officials. His campaign’s pitch to donors — that Faulconer’s ability to win in a large, diverse city like San Diego offers a microcosm of a statewide effort — appears to be resonating.
“Fundraising is indicative of how successful a candidate is, fundraising and endorsements — that is the objective measure of a candidate at this point,” said Matt Rexroad, a Republican consultant who is not working for any recall candidates. “Faulconer certainly has been gathering a lot of support in terms of endorsements and fundraising is indicative of support throughout the state.”
Other Republicans have so far been unable to keep pace. Businessman Cox, who was crushed by Newsom in the 2018 election, has sunk $7 million into his campaign as he rebranded with a bear-themed advertising blitz and media tour, but Cox has raised little money otherwise from large donors. Tellingly, a number of Republicans who backed Cox in 2018 have donated to Faulconer this time around.
Former Rep. Doug Ose has raised about $150,000 from people in the Sacramento region that Ose used to represent. Most of celebrity Caitlyn Jenner’s roughly $300,000 big-donor haul has come from out of state, suggesting Jenner has generated national buzz but struggled to make significant headway in California.
Those dynamics are a welcome affirmation for Newsom’s team. The governor has an overwhelming cash advantage, can boast promising poll numbers and is facing a fragmented Republican field. That solidifies Newsom’s position and allows him to project strength to both potential donors and to fellow Democrats still considering dipping their toes into the water.
It also suggests that Faulconer’s cash advantage will not ultimately amount to much in 2021. But the former mayor’s poll position could set him up as the GOP frontrunner to match up with Newsom in a 2022 election that will arrive with the recall fresh in voters’ memories.
“The Republican establishment such as it is, including most large donors, view Kevin Faulconer as the best shot in the 2022 gubernatorial,” Sragow said. “It looks like there is support coming in for Kevin Faulconer to position him as the frontrunner to make it in the 2022 primary.”
But even if Faulconer has emerged as the consensus candidate of the Republican establishment, “I’m not sure if that matters,” said Democratic consultant Robin Swanson. She argued that Faulconer has not done enough to broaden his appeal beyond the Republican base that represents about a quarter of the total electorate.
“I don’t think that the Republican Party in California has successfully branded themselves as moderate anything,” Swanson said, and she argued no Republicans have been able to generate significant excitement among voters. “That’s something Schwarzenegger did for the Republican Party in California,” Swanson said, “and they don’t have that.”