If you want to snag one of California’s 53 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, start saving: The average winner in 2016 spent $1.5 million to be a part of the country’s largest congressional delegation.
While some races were cheap, sleepy contests where incumbents strolled past the opposition, others were bitter partisan fights that ended up costing millions.
Here’s a look at who got the most bang for their buck and who had to pay through the nose to win votes.
California’s big dollar-per-vote spenders
On the high end, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) spent about $37.49 per vote to beat his surprisingly strong — and up until June, relatively unknown — Democratic challenger, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate. Issa’s campaign spent $5.8 million on operating expenditures to Applegate’s $1.5 million.
The list of top spenders per vote includes members of
Central Valley Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Turlock) spent $33.64 per vote for a total of $4.2 million and won reelection by three points over beekeeper Michael Eggman, a Democrat.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) spent $3.9 million toward another term and won an even narrower victory over Republican Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. Bera spent $25.46 per vote compared with Jones, who spent $8.87 per vote.
|Candidate||District||Total votes||Percent||Operating expenditures||Cost per vote|
|Darrell Issa (R)||CD 49||155,888||50.3%||$5,843,931.83||$37.49|
|David Valadao (R)||CD 21||75,126||56.7%||$2,807,639.13||$37.37|
|Jeff Denham (R)||CD 10||124,671||51.7%||$4,194,093.23||$33.64|
|Mike Honda (D)||CD 17||90,924||39%||$3,013,758.12||$33.15|
|Kevin McCarthy (R)||CD 23||167,116||69.2%||$4,620,518.68||$27.65|
|Ro Khanna (D)||CD 17||142,268||61%||$3,641,413.88||$25.60|
|Ami Bera (D)||CD 07||152,133||51.2%||$3,873,699.82||$25.46|
|Ed Royce (R)||CD 39||150,777||57.2%||$3,299,814.35||$21.89|
|Isadore Hall (D)||CD 44||85,289||47.8%||$1,862,463.99||$21.84|
|Nanette Barragán (D)||CD 44||93,124||52.2%||$1,740,102.87||$18.69|
*Note: Spending figures are based on the latest reports campaigns filed with the Federal Election Commission. To calculate the cost per vote, The Times looked at a campaign's operating expenditures instead of its total overall spending, which can include money given to other campaigns or charities.
The biggest losers
The cycle’s biggest loser in regard to dollars spent per vote was longtime Democratic Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose), who spent $33.15 per vote in a loss to fellow Democrat Ro Khanna.
Honda’s campaign shelled out $3 million and came away with just 39% of the vote when the polls closed. Khanna, who came close to ousting Honda in 2014, also made the list of top spenders, with $25.60 spent per vote. He spent about $600,000 more than Honda but came away with 51,000 more votes.
Another big campaign defeat was felt by former Compton state Sen. Isadore Hall III, who spent $21.84 per vote in a narrow loss to attorney and former Hermosa Beach City Councilwoman Nanette Barragán, who spent $18.69 per vote after a bruising campaign to replace outgoing Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro).
Neither spent lavishly in the race, but because so few voters came to the polls in November, the cost-per-vote figure is inflated. Voter turnout in the district was around 60%.
Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) has the second highest cost per vote for the election at $37.37, also thanks to the low turnout in his Central Valley district.
His campaign spent $2.8 million to wallop Democrat Emilio Huerta with 56.7% of the vote. Around 60% of registered voters cast ballots in that district, according to the nonpartisan election guide California Target Book.
Other relatively expensive losses include Republican Justin Fareed, who spent $15.10 a vote, but lost by more than six percentage points to Democrat Salud Carbajal — who spent $16.95 a vote to represent Santa Barbara in Congress. Democrat Bryan Caforio spent $13.42 a vote in his six-point loss to Rep. Steve Knight (R-Lancaster). Knight spent $11.77 a vote, the most efficient spending of any winning candidate in a close race.
Spending big, but not in close races
Not everyone on the list of top spenders had a competitive race.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) landed in the number five spot for spending $27.65 per vote. He won 69% of the vote in an easy contest against Democrat Wendy Reed.
McCarthy lands high because his campaign doled out $4.6 million in operating expenditures. His campaign racked up over half a million dollars in catering and meal costs, as well as $229,000 in airfare over the last two-year election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. His campaign also spent $525,000 on fundraising consultants to bring in money.
To calculate the cost per vote, The Times looked at a campaign’s operating expenditures instead of its total overall spending, which can include money given to other campaigns or charities.
McCarthy’s committee, for example, gave over $2.5 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee, the group that helps get Republicans around the country elected.
Spending small and losing big
Candidates who spend little in California congressional races sometimes find that they lose big.
Six candidates reported no federal expenditures at all. One candidate, Adrienne Edwards, who challenged Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), reported spending just $1.80 for the entire campaign cycle.
Most established members of Congress who represent safe districts — meaning their party has an overwhelming advantage when it comes to the number of registered votes — faced off against people who didn’t run competitive campaigns.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s opponent in 2016 was public school teacher Preston Picus, who appeared on ballots without a party affiliation, but called himself a progressive independent.
He reported spending $3,000 during the campaign — good for about a nickel a vote. He won 19% of the vote.
“Spending a lot of money seems to have a pretty direct correlation to your outcome, with a few exceptions,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor and election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Some candidates can spend little and still win because they are in safe seats.
Bay Area Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) had the most cost-efficient campaign. The freshman congressman spent just over $312,000 on operating expenditures and won 214,868 votes — 72% of the vote. DeSaulnier’s cost per vote: $1.47.