State Issues

Politicians spent $1 billion on last election

Governor-elect Gavin Newsom celebrates his win during his campaign party at The Exchange in Los Angeles.
Governor-elect Gavin Newsom celebrates his win during his campaign party at The Exchange in Los Angeles.

A few hours before the polls closed Tuesday, the California Target Book – which tracks California political trends – reported that more than $1 billion had been spent on campaigns.

That figure implied big things were happening. But Tuesday’s vote was, well, predictable. Those who were expected to win, Democrats mostly, did. But even though Democrats flipped at least two congressional seats – with the possibility of two or three others when the votes are eventually counted – the state did not play a significant role, as once seemed likely, in determining control of the House.

Democrats easily won enough seats in other states to retake the House and re-elevate San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi into the speakership.

The media frenzy over congressional contests overshadowed ho-hum contests for the two ballot-topping offices of governor and U.S. senator.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom coasted into the governorship, almost pre-ordained once he fended off primary challenger Antonio Villaraigosa; Newsom faced only token opposition from Republican John Cox. He will become, judging from his own words, the most liberal governor of the past half-century and perhaps ever, but now must figure out how to pay for his many promises of new healthcare, education and social welfare benefits – or how to sidestep them.

Becoming governor of the nation’s richest and most populous state elevates Newsom into the upper ranks of national politics. Could – and would – he run for president two years hence, given that two other Californians – Sen. Kamala Harris and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti – are already putative candidates?

If he opts out of 2020, and Trump wins a second term, the presidency would be open in 2024 – neatly coinciding with the mid-point of a Newsom second term as governor. But if Trump loses to a Democrat in 2020, it could thwart whatever presidential ambitions Newsom might harbor.

Dianne Feinstein, first elected to the Senate in 1992, won another six-year term, but she’s 85 years old and it wouldn’t be surprising if she stepped down before 2024, allowing Newsom to appoint her successor and perhaps even take the seat himself as a pathway to the presidency.

Feinstein’s challenger, fellow Democrat Kevin de León, hoped anti-Donald Trump fervor and the Democrats’ shift to the left would make Feinstein vulnerable. But his campaign never shifted out of first gear.

De León, former president pro tem of the state Senate, could have claimed a down-ballot statewide office and moved up the ladder, but he grabbed for the brass ring and missed. Now he’ll be hunting for a backup position, perhaps on the Los Angeles City Council.

The most spectacular campaign spending in California this year was on 11 statewide ballot measures. They accounted for a third of the $1 billion with nearly $200 million of that spent against two measures, Proposition 6, which would have repealed a package of gas taxes and car fees passed by the Legislature, and Proposition 8, which purported to cut costs of dialysis treatments for those with kidney failure.

While both measures lost, the $366 million spent on ballot measures made winners of campaign consultants and indicated Californians can look forward, perhaps with dread, at deciding many more high-dollar issues at future elections.

Dan Walters writes on matters of statewide significance for CALmatters, a public interest journalism organization. Email: