California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his supporters have shot ahead in the recall money chase in recent weeks, far outpacing an early show of force from groups looking to eject him from office.
Those backing Newsom have raised a total of $13.2 million while recall proponents have collected $4.7 million, burning through nearly all of it, according to state fundraising records.
As megadonors and special interest groups cut big checks to keep the governor in office, some of the donations, especially those from Hollywood, are drawing new scrutiny.
Paramount Pictures this week provided $40,000 to the anti-recall effort. That check follows a $3 million infusion in late May from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, the most from any single donor.
Such fundraising largesse from Tinseltown to a Golden State Democratic leader in a fight for his job may seem par for the course. But the checks are providing a reminder that Newsom carved out a special COVID lockdown exemption for the television and movie industries, deeming them “critical infrastructure” and allowing them to continue operating throughout the pandemic. At the same time, regular citizens, restaurants and other businesses faced some of the strictest lockdowns in the country.
Plenty of studios took advantage of the carve-out, including Netflix, which started filming a new season of “The Kominsky Method,” a comedy starring Michael Douglas, in November.
The Netflix connection also figures into Newsom’s infamous French Laundry incident last fall, which helped fuel the early recall campaign. When the governor was spotted at the opulent restaurant amid heightened COVID restrictions, he was celebrating the birthday of longtime friend Jason Kinney, who lobbies for Netflix, one of many clients pressing for exemptions from lockdowns.
Netflix nearly tripled spending on lobbying in California last year, jumping to an average of $70,725 a quarter, as the Intercept reported in December. Paramount Pictures spent at least $85,000 last year to influence “essential business” rules that California agencies produced.
Anne Dunsmore, the campaign manager for Rescue California, one of the groups behind the recall effort against Newsom, said Hastings’ $3 million check serves a dual purpose. It helps open the Hollywood fundraising floodgates to the governor and demonstrates to other Democrats that Hastings is now squarely in his corner. (Hastings had given $7 million to a committee backing former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Newsom’s 2018 primary contender, during that contest.)
“It’s political payback money, and it sends a message to Antonio that I’ve got Reed Hastings and you don’t, so think carefully before you jump into this race,” Dunsmore told RealClearPolitics.
A spokesman for Newsom’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Democratic strategist Steven Maviglio said the big donors are simply responding to polls showing the recall effort losing steam as public concern about COVID eases. A Public Policy Institute of California poll out last week found just 40% in favor of removing Newsom, with 64% approving his handling of the pandemic and Newsom holding a 54% job approval rating over all. That 54% rating is 10 points lower than in September 2020, before the French Laundry incident.
“It looks like [Newsom’s] a slam dunk to win this thing, and people want to be on the right side of that road,” Maviglio said in an interview.
Maviglio, who served as the press secretary for former California Gov. Gray Davis -- who was recalled in 2003 -- acknowledged that Newsom isn’t out of the woods yet. He supports a recent Democratic push to hold the recall election in early September, rather than November, which would be amid the wildfire season.
“Right now things are good for him, but you have to be careful,” he said. “We’re facing a record drought. We could have a natural disaster, earthquake, you name it, at any moment. Polls show an almost rock solid 40% will vote for his recall come hell or high water – so you just need 10 more points” for Newsom to lose.
So far, Maviglio argued, there isn’t an Arnold Schwarzenegger-type challenger who can siphon away enough Democratic and independent voters to pose a real threat.
Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, considered the top Republican in the race, and businessman John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, each polled at 22% support in late April, while reality star Caitlin Jenner lagged far behind at 6% despite her numerous national TV appearances.
There’s still months to go in the race, and Faulconer has positioned himself as the most organized opponent, steadily rolling out policy plans, including a middle-class tax cut that he says would be the largest in state history.
“Mayor Faulconer is the leading candidate to recall Gavin Newsom,” said Stephen Puetz, Faulconer’s campaign manager. “Our campaign is building clear grassroots momentum from voters across the political spectrum as we build resources to make our case for lower taxes, safe streets and open schools for the people of California. Gavin Newsom can throw tens of millions of dollars at voters, but it won’t save his failing political career.”
Faulconer has at least $2 million in his 2022 campaign account, which he can use in the recall, and at least $120,000 more in a specific recall committee, while Cox is mainly self-funding and has roughly $5 million in a recall committee and another $2.5 million in his 2022 campaign account, according to a CalMatters.org daily recall fundraising tracker. Jenner has raised just $212,000 so far.
Pro-recall groups got an early fundraising start last fall, at first surpassing opponents’ cash-collecting. But after recall supporters submitted far more signatures than needed in April, opponents quickly picked up the pace. Over the last two weeks, in addition to the Hastings’ check, the California Real Estate Political Action Committee kicked in $1.5 million, the Democratic Governors Association gave $695,250 and the United Nurses Association ponied up $400,000, among several other big donations.
The group Stop the Republican Recall received a total of $600,000 in two donations from union organizations – the Northern California District Council of Laborers as well as the Southern California contingent of the same group.
Several big union groups collectively threw their support to Newsom on Monday, with the noted exceptions of Richard Louis Brown, the new president of the SEIU Local 1000, the largest union representing state workers, along with state teacher unions. Brown has said he wanted to “run Gavin Newsom out of office” because of state worker pay cuts the governor and legislature made last year during the pandemic. Earlier this week, however, the statewide umbrella group SEIU California issued a statement supporting Newsom. In recent months, teacher unions have crossed swords with the governor over his push to reopen schools.
Recall proponents say they never expected to out-fundraise Newsom and don’t need to because they have grassroots momentum on their side. Special elections depend on turnout and which side is more energized, Dunsmore argued.
The groups organizing the recall needed to spend money upfront to get the effort off the ground and collect signatures. They say they are now accelerating their fundraising operations in response to several Democrats pressing for the special election to be held as soon as possible, in late August or early September.
“I’ll take my 25,000 volunteers who want to be out there campaigning instead of [union] members being pulled by leadership to go knock on doors for Newsom,” Dunsmore said.