By Mary Marlow

PAC money spent on City Council elections in Santa Monica are starting to show a new trend – downward. From 2010 through 2014, candidates for city council needed to raise more and more money to get their name and message out to voters in hopes of winning a council seat. The growing money flowed mostly from special interest PACs supporting candidates they wanted to see win.

The usual mix of money and endorsements started to change 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 in winning all council seats. All three winning candidates were endorsed by Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR), the kingmaker at the time.

In 2016 a change in both how much candidates and PACs spent shrunk by two thirds – from a total of $1,186,000 in 2014 to $405,000 in 2016. The amount was even less considering only three seats with fourteen contenders were contested in 2014 versus four seats and ten candidates in 2016.

Winners were four incumbents; Terry O’Day, Tony Vazquez, Ted Winterer, and Gleam Davis. All winners 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.

In 2018, three seats were available in a field of seven candidates resulting in about half the spending, $520,000 of the high mark amount of 2014, $1,186,000. In this turning point race, two incumbents Kevin McKeown and Sue Himmelrich won along with challenger Greg Morena. Incumbent Pam O’Connor lost to Greg Morena. It was the first time in sixteen years (2002) since Mike Feinstein, an incumbent, lost a council seat. It appeared that money and endorsements behind Morena outpaced those of O’Connor paving the way for his win. This time SMRR endorsed the three winners, while Santa Monica Forward endorsed O’Connor, McKeown and Morena.

Endorsements by the usual PACs have also lost their power to persuade as voters saw the same people voting for incumbents in the same groups they control; SMRR, Santa Monica Forward, and the Democratic Club, who share membership and steering committee leaders. Santa Monica City Employees, Firefighters, and Police were seen for their self interest endorsements of the incumbents, who continue to support their high salaries and pensions.

This year, we are rethinking our previous assessment of the primary role of money and endorsements of candidates are critical to winning a city 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. See our chart of 10 years of election spending.

The win of three challengers against four incumbents is unprecedented and historic in Santa Monica elections. The three challenger winners 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.

The three winners formed a slate of four candidates going against a slate of four incumbents. A new resident focused PAC, Santa Monicans for Change, raised and spent the least amount of any PAC, about $20,000.

The most notable difference, besides money, is the savvy use of social media by the challengers. There were everyday 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 doorhangers. Of course, the pandemic also limited canvassing neighborhoods 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.

This story has been corrected to show Santa Monica Forward endorsed McKeown in 2018.