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Changing Election Trends

By Mary Marlow

PAC money spent on City Council elections in Santa Monica is starting to show a new trend -- downward.

From 2010 through 2014, Council candidates needed to raise more and more money to get their name and message out, and the growing money flowed mostly from special interest PACs supporting candidates they wanted to see win.

In 2014 when Sue Himmelrich, a newcomer, won an open seat along with incumbents Kevin McKeown and Pam O’Connor, money and endorsements appeared to play a critical role.

All three winning candidates were endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the kingmaker at the time, and benefited from most of the $1,186,000 spent by the candidates and their supporting PACS.

In 2016 a change in both how much candidates and PACs spent shrunk by two thirds –- to $405,000. Four incumbents won -- Terry O’Day, Tony Vazquez, Ted Winterer and Gleam Davis. All were endorsed by SMRR and Santa Monica Forward, a new pro-growth SMRR offshoot.

It appeared that the incumbents won because they were better known and broadly endorsed. PACs didn’t need to spend as much on a fragmented field of little-known challengers.

2018, which saw $520,000 in spending, down from a high of $1,186,000 in 2014, was a turning point race. Two incumbents Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich won, while incumbent Pam O’Connor lost to Greg Morena.

It was the first time an incumbent had lost since Mike Feinstein in 2002. SMRR endorsed the three winners, while Santa Monica Forward, endorsed O’Connor, Morena and McKeown.

It appeared that money and endorsements behind Morena outpaced those of O’Connor paving the way for his win

This year, we began rethinking our previous assessment that money and endorsements play a critical role in winning a Council seat.

All 21 of the 2020 candidates’ committees spent only $168,140, while the PACs spent twice as much, $330,170, for a grand total of $498,310 ("OPINION -- The Year Election Money Didn't Win," November 9, 2020).

That three challengers won against four incumbents is unprecedented and historic in Santa Monica elections.

The three winning challengers and their supporting PAC raised and spent the least money, $106,812, versus $246,459 by the council incumbents.

Challengers had only one endorsement, from the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City with no money, but frequent email support.

A new resident focused PAC, Santa Monicans for Change, which backed a slate of four challengers, raised and spent the least amount of any PAC, about $20,000.

The most notable difference, besides money, was the savvy use of social media by the challengers. There were daily post’s on Facebook and Nextdoor, along with emails from the candidates and their supporters.

The social media posts were dedicated to issues residents care about -- overdevelopment, city spending, rising crime and homelessness.

In contrast, the incumbents were mostly absent from social media with the exception of virtual online candidate forums held by several neighborhood associations and other civic organizations.

Our best guess is that social media in the form of NextDoor, Facebook, Zoom and emails allowed candidates to dialogue with voters versus the one-way communication of glossy mailers and door hangers.

Of course, the pandemic also limited canvassing neighborhoods a tactic used effectively in the past for incumbents by SMRR and Unite Here Local 11.

Only time will tell if this election is a money and endorsement game changer or a pandemic year anomaly.

Mary Marlow is is chair of the Santa Monica Transparency Project.

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