In a state with nearly 38 million people, few have more influence than the top 100 donors to California campaigns – a powerful club that has donated overwhelmingly to Democrats and spent $1.25 billion to influence voters over the past dozen years.
These big spenders represent a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups that donated to California campaigns from 2001 through 2011. But they supplied about a third of the $3.67 billion lavished on state campaigns during that time, campaign records show.
With a few exceptions, these campaign elites have gotten their money’s worth, according to an analysis by California Watch of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and state finance records.
The state’s top 100 donors gave nearly five times as much to winning candidates as they did to losers. And they helped steer initiative campaigns to success as well – about 55 percent of every dollar they contributed to propositions aided a winning campaign, the analysis shows.
Some of these top 100 donors are continuing to donate heavily in the 2012 election cycle. For their part, tobacco companies Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds have spent more than $30 million since January to defeat an initiative on tomorrow’s ballot that would increase the cigarette tax.
“Major players with major stakes in statewide issues are going to make sure their opinions are heard,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College who focuses on California issues.
Given its size and wealth, California automatically sets national records for campaign donations – more money is spent here on politics than in any other state.
Not surprisingly for California, the top 100 directed their money in large part toward the Democratic Party, which controls the governor’s office and the state Legislature. Overall, these top donors – 50 wealthy individuals and 50 special interest groups analyzed by California Watch – gave twice as much to Democratic candidates as they did members of other political parties.
But there was a split: Special interest donors favored Democrats, while individual donors favored Republicans by a slim margin.
When broken down, records show the top 50 group contributors – including labor unions, energy companies and tribal governments – were three times more likely to give to Democratic candidates. The top 50 individuals, however, gave slightly more to Republicans.
The state’s most extravagant individual donor and biggest campaign loser is Stephen Bing, the real estate scion and Hollywood producer. He gave more money than any other individual to a state campaign – $49.5 million in 2006 to support Proposition 87, known as the alternative energy oil tax, which failed.
But Bing proved that a handful of California’s richest special interests and individuals have an outsized voice in elections here. The campaign he spearheaded became one of the most expensive in California history, drawing more than $156 million in contributions. Chevron, Aera Energy and Occidental Oil & Gas donated a combined $80 million to fight Bing’s measure.
The biggest special interest donor, the California Teachers Association, spent more than $118 million on campaigns in the state during the past five election cycles and the first half of this one. The union has focused overwhelmingly on initiatives, spending $100 million of that war chest advocating and opposing ballot measures over the past dozen years.
More than a third of its spending went to fight just four propositions that were key pieces of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s attempted government overhaul in 2005. The measures – all of which failed – would have extended the probationary period for teachers, altered the formula for funding public schools, required employee consent on union dues and removed redistricting powers from the Legislature.
Eight tribal governments also made the list of top special-interest donors. But two stood out: The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and the Morongo Band of Mission Indians spent a combined $80 million in 2008 supporting four propositions to expand tribal gambling operations; they all passed.