Big donors dominated California congressional primaries, report says

Big donors dominated in California congressional primaries, a watchdog group's report says. Here, a voter casts his ballot in a Long Beach barber shop on June 3.
Big donors dominated in California congressional primaries, a watchdog group’s report says. Here, a voter casts his ballot in a Long Beach barber shop on June 3.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

A small group of deep-pocketed contributors to California’s congressional primary campaigns this election season outpaced a larger group of modest donors, an analysis by a watchdog group has found.

The California Public Interest Research Group, or CALPIRG, analyzed contributions to congressional campaigns across the nation and found that, in California, there were 864 donors who gave $1,000 or more to candidates running in the June 3 primaries.

But there were at least 34,000 contributors who gave less than $200 apiece, the analysis found; the smaller donors accounted for just 33% of the $43.9 million kicked in for all California congressional primary campaigns.

The smaller group of big donors accounted for 67% of all contributions, CALPIRG found.


Among 49 states, California ranked 22nd in terms of the disparity between the amounts candidates received from big donors and those from more modest contributors. Texas ranked first, with 80% of contributions there coming from big donors.

(Louisiana was not included because it holds a single election, with a runoff used only if a candidate fails to get a majority of the vote.)

Donors are limited to $2,500 per candidate in congressional primaries; contribution limits in state races are substantially higher. The CALPIRG study looked at only congressional races and the organization plans to update its research after the Nov. 4 general election.

“Small donors’ voices are increasingly drowned out by the spending of a small cadre of large donors, and ordinary citizens are the ones who lose out,” said Zach Weinstein, campaign organizer with CALPIRG Education Fund.

Leila Pederson of California Common Cause, which works closely with CALPIRG on campaign finance reform efforts, said the study reaffirms the organization’s view that big donations give an outsized voice to wealthy donors and special interests.

“Is it any wonder that ordinary voters feel that members of Congress listen to powerful interests more than to their constituents when, in fact, constituents are providing only a token amount of their campaign funds?” Pederson asked rhetorically at a downtown Los Angeles news conference on Tuesday.

She and Weinstein said such programs as matching public funds for candidates and tax credits for small contributions can help ease the influence of big-money donors on a campaign and an officeholder.

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