California recall: Newsom foes raise more money, but governor has more cash on hand

Ben Christopher
CalMatters
Orrin Heatlie, the main organizer for the Recall of California Gov. Newsom campaign, is pictured with a banner before recording a radio program at the KABC radio station studio in Culver City, Calif., Saturday, March 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The campaign to eject Gov. Gavin Newsom got off to an early financial head start, raising gobs of money from high-profile Republican luminaries, SoCal millionaires and irate voters, according to new campaign finance reports.

But like the world’s most lucratively sponsored tortoise, the anti-recall campaign is planning to take back the lead in the money race — and soon.

So far, political fundraisers have set up six campaign committees to spend on either side of the still-unofficial recall election. The pro-recall side came out ahead, with $5.45 million raised, state reports show, while the committees spending in Newsom’s defense brought in $4.56 million.

Recall opponents also boasted a higher share of contributions from small-dollar donors, which political strategists sometimes take as a proxy for regular-folks enthusiasm that translates into votes. 

And while Newsom’s opponents have burned through most of their cash, the governor’s defenders have roughly $2.5 million socked away.

“Democrats across the country, but particularly in California, are fired up — they see this for what it is, a Republican partisan power grab,” said Newsom spokesperson Nathan Click.

Anne Dunsmore, campaign manager of Rescue California, the chief fundraising vehicle for the recall campaign, said her committee’s empty bank account isn’t a sign of weakness, but of success. 

Supporters had to collect nearly 1.5 million signatures to put the recall on the ballot — something that required considerable resources. “If I had finished the signature gathering with a surplus, shame on me,” she said. 

In this Nov. 21, 2020, file photo, demonstrators shout slogans while carrying a sign calling for a recall on Gov. Gavin Newsom during a protest against a stay-at-home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Huntington Beach, Calif.

 'A million bucks worth of potshots'

Now it’s on to the next phase of the campaign. And because the Newsom camp will be fending off attacks not just from the pro-recall campaign itself, but from every candidate hoping to replace the governor, “they’re gonna have to spend a whole lot more to win than we’re gonna have to spend to beat him,” Dunsmore said. “Everybody’s gonna have over a million bucks worth of potshots.”

By April 30, committees on both sides of the recall fight were required to file semi-annual reports with the secretary of state disclosing all of their fundraising activity to date. That included a list of larger donors — those who gave at least $200 — as well as the total contributions from smaller anonymous donors. Except for the occasional poll on the governor’s favorability ratings, these campaign finance reports provide one of the first hard metrics of the state of the race. 

Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who advised Arnold Schwarzenegger in his successful 2003 recall race against Gov. Gray Davis, said that recall supporters are all but certain to get outraised and outspent by labor and other groups backing Newsom. 

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2021, file photo, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks during a news conference in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles. Faulconer is one of the Republican candidates running to replace Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, of California, in a likely recall election in fall 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

“The ‘no’ (on recall) side is going to raise somewhere between as much money as God and more money than God,” he said. 

Once the campaign starts, “it comes down to who the candidates are and how much money they’re able to spend.” None of the contestants in the field have “blown the doors off” yet, Walsh said.

On the Republican side, the most notable candidates at the moment are former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Newsom’s 2018 challenger John Cox, and former Olympian turned reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner.

Faulconer has raised more than $1.9 million for his 2022 gubernatorial campaign — money that could also be spent on a recall race. A pro-recall issue committee he sponsored has raised another $98,900.

With another $5 million donation to his own campaign reported Tuesday, Cox has raised $7.5 million — though $7 million has come from his own bank account. Cox, who lost to Newsom 62% to 38%, is also rebranding himself as @BeastJohnCox and embarking on a bus tour today with an event in Sacramento featuring a live bear and a stop at the French Laundry, the restaurant made even more famous by Newsom’s mask-less dinner that jump-started the recall effort. 

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, center, greets a supporter after a news conference in Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles. Faulconer announced Monday he is entering the race for California governor, the first major Republican to formally step into the contest while a potential recall election aimed at Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom moves closer to qualifying for the ballot this year.

This morning an initial report declaring Jenner’s candidacy popped up on the secretary of state’s campaign finance web portal. There are no other filings listing how much she has raised or from whom. 

Democrats rally around governor 

The Democratic side is still virtually empty of challengers. Newsom and the party aim to keep it that way. Last weekend, the state party held a virtual convention in which the theme — hammered on repeatedly in pre-recorded orations from top Democrats across the state and country — was to rally around the governor and defeat the recall. 

It’s an easy argument for Newsom to make at the moment. Coronavirus infection rates are low and vaccination rates are high in California. The governor has vowed to release businesses from most COVID-19 restrictions on June 15. Recent polling shows that most Californians still approve of the governor in general — and of his handling of the economy and schools during the pandemic in particular. 

That could all make it a challenge for recall supporters and anti-Newsom candidates to raise funds. 

But Dunsmore from Rescue California said that even if the pandemic continues to recede, the governor will be vulnerable on a host of issues — including crime, drought and unpaid unemployment benefits. 

“It is laughable that he doesn’t know how much trouble he is in,” she said. “Everybody smells blood in the water now. I don’t care what the polls say.”