Wealthy Californians Spending Big on Out-of-State Elections

A tiny group of the state's richest spend millions to influence political races

It's been more than a quarter of a century since a Republican presidential candidate won California. And polls show that the Democratic winning streak is likely to continue. With the outcome almost certain, presidential candidates rarely campaign for votes in California. But they do turn to the state's wealthiest for something they consider just as valuable: campaign cash.

"Most of the money in presidential campaigns comes from millionaires and billionaires and special interest groups," said Daniel Newman, CEO of MapLight, a nonpartisan group that studies the influence of money in politics.

The NBC4 I-Team examined thousands of donations — contributions made by Californians to federal races from January 2015 through June 2016 — and found that a fraction of California's richest residents are donating nearly half the money to candidates and political action committees. Digging deeper into the numbers, we found just 62 people out of the state's 38 million residents have given more than a quarter of the $500,000,000 donated in the state, making California "the ATM of American politics."

"You have a tiny fraction of the population giving more of the money, meaning everyone else doesn't matter so much when it comes to political funding," explains Newman.

Some of those names come from Hollywood including George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, and former DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg. And a chunk of the money they're donating is going out of state. Katzenberg and his wife Marilyn have given directly to Democratic senate candidates in four swing states; races that are still too close to call.

"Right now the control of the senate is up for grabs," said Newman. "Whether it's Republican or Democratic control will have a big effect on everyone in the country."

Other Hollywood power players have also donated to out of state senate campaigns including director and producer JJ Abrams. He gave to Democratic senate candidates in Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Wisconsin.

But not all of the cash is going to Democrats. Southern California real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer, whose apartment complexes dot the local landscape, donated more than $2 million to help elect Donald Trump. And some contributors, like Sean Parker, founder of Napster and the former president of Facebook, are giving to both Democrats and Republicans. The I-Team found nearly $2 million worth of Parker donations going to a combination of candidates and committees.

"For your billionaire, it's really not that much money but it buys incredible access," said Newman.

Los Angeles media mogul Haim Saban and his wife Cheryl have given nearly $13 million in contributions this election cycle, to Democratic candidates and causes. By far the state's biggest donor doesn't come from Hollywood, but from the Silicon Valley. Former hedge fund manager and environmental activist, Tom Steyer, has given $38 million so far. Most of that money went to an organization called NextGen Climate Action who among other activities is running commercials on local televisions pushing for stronger environmental laws.

"Ultimately, the policies that are made in Washington D.C. do affect our businesses here in San Jose, Silicon Valley," said Matthew Mahood, president of the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Most of California's biggest donors are backing Democrats in the upcoming election. But Donald Trump has raised more money in Los Angeles than any other metro area so far. All told, over 60 percent of the state's donations go to Democrats. Political party aside, nearly half of California's campaign contributions come from megadonors; people who've donated at least $20,000 towards this election.

"I think Americans as a whole should be outraged at this broken system where money comes from millionaires, billionaires and special-interest," said Newman. "We all pay a price for the system where the people that make our laws are responsive to donors instead of voters."

Contact Us