Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has amassed a war chest of more than $16 million for his 2018 bid for governor, far outpacing his rivals and cementing his position as the clear front-runner in a race that's just starting to liven up.
With his dominant fundraising and consistent lead in the polls, Newsom is sailing toward the June primary as his two closest Democratic rivals, state Treasurer John Chiang and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, struggle to close the gap and Republican candidates lag far behind.
Still, Chiang and Villaraigosa have stashed away enough money to mount competitive campaigns and potentially finish in the top two in June, enough to advance to the November general election.
Chiang and Villaraigosa each reported having just under $6 million in cash on hand. In 2017, Villaraigosa raised $4.4 million, nearly a half-million more than Chiang brought in. Newsom swamped them both, raising more than $10 million in 2017, according to campaign finance reports filed with the California Secretary of State's office.
The Newsom campaign was quick to crow about the haul, calling the lieutenant governor's fundraising "eye-popping" in a dispatch sent to the media Wednesday.
"Gavin has more than double the cash reserves of any of his opponents, and that is largely due to the huge army of grassroots and small-dollar contributors who are funding his campaign," campaign spokesman Nathan Click said. "No other candidate in this race can compete with the depth or breadth of his support."
The Villaraigosa and Chiang campaigns also expressed confidence in their numbers.
"We set out to make this a two-person race, and we have accomplished that by dramatically increasing our support in the polls, raising over $7 million and laying the foundation for a winning people-powered campaign," Villaraigosa campaign spokesman Luis Vizcaino said. "We are on track to advance to the general election and win in November."
Chiang campaign spokesman Fabien Levy noted that, along with the money he has socked away for the governor's race, the Democrat also has $3.2 million sitting in his treasurer's campaign account. Still, it's unclear how much of that money can be legally transferred over. Newsom also has money stashed away in a lieutenant governor campaign account — close to $3 million.
One notable item in Chiang's report: He raised $1.3 million and spent $1,264,602 during the last six months of 2017. That represents a dramatic uptick in spending since he entered the race in mid-2016, occurring just before a campaign shake-up intended to reboot a candidacy that has been lagging in the polls.
The other top Democratic candidate in the race, Delaine Eastin, reported having just $183,000 in her campaign at the beginning of the year, nowhere near enough to air a television ad to make an impact in the race. Eastin raised $658,000 in 2017, including $100,000 she gave to her campaign.
Newsom's lead in the polls is significant, but has not been on the rise. In November, a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 31% of likely voters backed Newsom, more than a 10% advantage over second-place finisher Villaraigosa. But his numbers have hovered in the mid-20% range in other polls since that time.
"He doesn't at the moment have a commanding position," Democratic political strategist Garry South said. "It leaves enough headroom for another Democrat to finish a strong second."
South, who worked for Newsom during his short-lived 2010 campaign for governor, also cautioned the lieutenant governor about getting overconfident because of his fundraising advantage.
In his 2006 bid for governor, then-state Controller Steve Westly had raised or contributed a total of $25 million by this point in the race, more than twice as much as his Democratic rival Phil Angelides, the state treasurer at the time. Angelides went on to beat Westly in the Democratic primary, only to get crushed by incumbent Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the general election.
The true value of fundraising ability also came into question in the 2010 governor's race. Billionaire Meg Whitman spent more than $178 million on her bid — including $144 million of her own money — only to lose to Jerry Brown who, by comparison, spent a measly $36 million. His campaign was buttressed by spending and on-the-ground campaigning efforts by allies including labor unions.
Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, a senior advisor to the Whitman campaign, said California election history has proved that spending the most money is no guarantee of success. But to have a legitimate shot, he said, candidates need to raise a minimum amount — more than $10 million in a governor's race — to get their message out and name identification up in a state as vast as California.
"There's a minimum threshold of money that has to be spent, and Villaraigosa doesn't have it," Stutzman said.
But an independent expenditure committee created to support Villaraigosa's bid for governor could put him over the top, Stutzman said. The committee — run by Michael Trujillo, a longtime Villaraigosa aide, and Bill Burton, former deputy White House press secretary in the Obama administration — can accept donations free of dollar limits.
At least two super PACs also are supporting Newsom's bid for governor.
Among the Republicans in the race, Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox reported having $1.9 million in the bank at the beginning of 2018. Cox reported raising $3.5 million in 2017 — $3 million of that amount came from his own wallet.
Still, Cox is much better off than Republican rival Travis Allen, a Huntington Beach assemblyman, who started the year $200,000 in debt.
Emanuel Patrascu, Allen's campaign manager, said the debt was for mailers the campaign plans to send voters in coming months.
"The outstanding amounts represent future payments for slate mail cards the campaign has reserved," Patrascu said.
The third GOP candidate in the race, former Sacramento Rep. Doug Ose, announced his candidacy in January and was not required to file a campaign finance report.
Stutzman said the future looks stormy for Republicans. The money Cox raised would make him dangerous in a congressional contest, but it's nowhere near enough for a competitive bid in a California governor's race, he said.
If all three Republicans stay in the race, the trio probably will fracture the vote and open the door for a November election with two Democrats on the ballot, he said.
3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from Travis Allen's campaign about his debt.