How Much Was Spent on the Recall Election? Nearly Half a Billion Dollars

In adding up the recall’s price tag, including state costs and campaign spending, a Sonoma State University professor said the total was at least $450 million.,


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How much was spent on the recall? One estimate: Nearly half a billion dollars.

Poll workers processing ballots in Downey, Calif., on Tuesday.Credit…Allison Zaucha for The New York Times

Sept. 15, 2021Updated 6:17 p.m. ET

The recall election is over, and Gov. Gavin Newsom held onto his office, leaving many Californians to ask: So how much did this whole thing cost?

Officially, the state estimated that administering a recall election would cost taxpayers $276 million. But that doesn’t take into account the mountain of cash spent on the campaigns — both Governor Newsom’s effort to keep his job and the attempts to gain traction by his rivals.

David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University and an expert on the state’s ballot initiative system, estimated that, all told, the cost of the recall would be closer to half a billion dollars — $450 million, and possibly more.

The state cost is, nominally, the largest share. To calculate the rest, Professor McCuan estimated that Mr. Newsom’s campaign would end up having raised around $90 million, based on the latest campaign finance filings. All the other candidates combined raised about $50 million.

Additionally, he estimated the spending by outside groups that sought to sway the election but were not bound by the same reporting rules because they weren’t directly affiliated with a candidate. Those could include nonpartisan efforts to get out the vote or some spending by the Democratic or Republican parties.

“There is a lot of money that isn’t necessarily directed at one candidate but is tethered to that candidate,” he said. He guessed it was around $30 million but could be twice that.

Still, none of that addresses what Professor McCuan described as one of the most important impacts of the Newsom recall election: “The spillover effect here is this increases the stakes of all levels of California politics. It raises the bar on the level of resources required to compete.”

California’s recalls and ballot initiatives — examples of direct democracy — were already famously expensive. Last year, the campaigns for and against 12 propositions on the ballot broke records, in large part because of huge spending by Uber and Lyft to pass Proposition 22, which exempted the ride-share companies from a law that would have required them to treat drivers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Mr. McCuan said that many interested parties have watched the way money shaped the recall battle, and are planning how they might be able to adopt bits of the playbook to initiate or influence efforts to recall local officials.

Next year’s midterms, determining the balance of Congress, will set new records, he predicted. “Only the future of the Western world will be at stake, according to both parties.”

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