Why Californians are donating millions to Senate candidates in other states

Mark Kelly, Doug Jones, Lindsey Graham
California political donors have given heavily to U.S. Senate candidates across the country, including Democratic challenger Mark Kelly of Arizona, left, and Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
(Getty Images)

Californians don’t have a U.S. Senate race on the ballot in 2020, but they have donated more than $13.2 million this year to senators or their challengers across the country, according to federal fundraising disclosures.

Some candidates, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.), have raised more money here than in their home states — a sign of California’s deep donor community and the heightened importance of control of the Senate in the Trump era.

“You can’t just be electing your own senators,” said Mike Arias, a trial attorney who donated to a candidate 2,000 miles away from his Los Angeles home. “You have to realize that, to get things done, you also have to help elect other like-minded senators in other states.”


Arias, 60, donated $500 to Jones’ reelection campaign, and he plans to contribute to Senate candidates in Arizona and Maine.

Democratic candidates received more than $8.6 million from Californians in the first nine months of 2019, from donors including Hollywood moguls, Silicon Valley CEOs and more modest givers. The Times calculated California’s role in funding Senate campaigns using records filed with the Federal Election Commission that include all donations over $200 between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30. Donations under $200 are not itemized, so it is impossible to know which states they came from based on FEC filings.

Californians are spending millions on U.S. Senate races. Californians have donated more than $1 million to candidates in each of five high-profile U.S. Senate races on the November 2020 ballot.
(Chris Keller/Los Angeles Times)

The state has long been a dependable source of donations for presidential candidates of both parties. President Trump picked up $15 million on a two-day fundraising blitz last month. And there have always been Californians who have contributed to out-of-state races.

But Democratic fundraisers say their ranks and donations have swelled since Trump’s election. In the 2018 cycle, donors successfully focused on flipping the U.S. House of Representatives.

“We’re seeing some of that energy now move to the Senate,” said Andy Spahn, a Los Angeles-based fundraiser who has deep ties to Hollywood donors and is a longtime political advisor to studio mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“There is a very real understanding about the importance of the Senate, particularly as it relates to judicial appointments,” he added. “The next step after covering the presidential bases has been doing everything possible to pick up the three or four Senate seats needed” to end Republican control of the chamber.

Several Democratic Senate candidates visited California on fundraising trips this month, notably to headline an event at the Bel-Air home of Walt Disney Studios Co-chairman Alan Horn and his wife, Cindy. Donors each spent up to $25,000 to support the campaigns of New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, and candidates Jaime Harrison of South Carolina, Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Amy McGrath of Kentucky and Mark Kelly of Arizona.

Senate races in Arizona, Colorado, South Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama have received the most money from California through Sept. 30, more than $1 million each, according to FEC records. California is among the top five donation states for at least one candidate in 31 of the 35 Senate races on the November 2020 ballot.

One example is Jones, the Alabaman trying to keep the Senate seat he won in a 2017 special election over Roy Moore, a Republican accused of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior with girls. It was the first time a Democrat won that seat in a quarter-century, and the party is desperate to hang onto it in 2020.

Californians have given Jones’ campaign more than $664,000, the most he has raised from any state; his haul from Alabama was more than $521,000. His nine GOP rivals have raised more than $295,000 in California and $2 million in Alabama.

Kelly, a former astronaut, has raised the most from Californians — $1.4 million — of all the Senate candidates in the country. That’s more than three times the California donations to his GOP rival, Sen. Martha McSally, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by the late John McCain. The Arizona race is among the most competitive in the nation.

Kelly has become well-known among Democratic donors nationwide because of his gun control activism. His wife, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), was shot in the head during a 2011 assassination attempt at a meet-and-greet event in Tucson. After the attack, which killed six people, Giffords and Kelly co-founded an advocacy organization named after her.

California resident Janet Wittenberg was taken with Kelly and Giffords when she met them this summer at a Tucson fundraiser. “I was so impressed by who he was as a human being,” the Walnut Creek retiree recalled.

She has donated more than $250 to Kelly’s campaign in what she described as “an act of patriotism.” Wittenberg, 66, said she believes Republican lawmakers have become a danger to democracy in the United States.

“This is not even political; it’s about, ‘Do you support the United States and the Constitution or don’t you?’” she said. “I really think [Arizona is] ready to move over from the dark side to the light, so to help nudge that along is a good thing.”

California donors have given Republican Senate hopefuls more than $4.6 million.

Graham brought in the biggest share of that figure, which counts donations larger than $200, raising more here than in his home state of South Carolina. The senator, who transformed himself from an acerbic Trump critic in 2016 to one of the president’s most vocal defenders, is not facing a competitive reelection fight next year.

Yet he raised nearly $8.4 million in the first nine months of this year — the biggest haul of his political career — and more than 10% of that came from Californians. Graham’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Several of Graham’s donors cited his support of Trump as motivation to give to his campaign.

“I don’t care where he’s from, he is a stand-up man who is wanting answers [from] the investigators of our wonderful President Trump,” said Colleen Hugo, 57, of Carpinteria, who donated $200. “I just believe in people who are stand-up human beings trying to fight the good fight for the American people, and Lindsey Graham is one of them.”

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado, who are facing tough races next year, have also received significant donations from Californians.

Donors in the state have also given more than $1 million to Democratic candidates vying to unseat Gardner, according to FEC records. Many top-tier Democrats in that race dropped out after former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper ended his presidential bid in August and decided to run against Gardner.

Mike Johnston had been a strong candidate for the seat, and Los Angeles screenwriter John August made a point of meeting him at an L.A. fundraiser in May.

August, who was born and raised in Colorado, said supporting a Democrat who could unseat Gardner in his home state was important both personally and in terms of flipping the Senate. He has donated $2,500 to Johnston’s campaign.

But now that Hickenlooper is in the race and Johnston has dropped out, August said he plans to support Hickenlooper’s bid.

“It’s important to me that a Democrat take that seat,” he said.