Rick Caruso’s Campaign Spending is Even More Whopping Than You Think

Cityside Column: Los Angeles has never seen anything like the $34 million—and counting!—that the developer has unleashed on his mayoral quest
196

In late April, LAMag learned that Rick Caruso had spent a mind-bending $23.78 million on his quest to be the next mayor of Los Angeles. Now that figure almost appears quaint. The mall master recently filed papers with the City Ethics Commission showing that, through May 21, he had super-sized his spend to $33.96 million.

Nearly all of it came from his own outdoor-mall-stuffed coffers. As his two principal rivals, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass and Councilmember Kevin de León, continue to attend fundraisers and dial for dollars, Caruso just keeps writing checks. After another recent $4 million personal handover, he has given his campaign at least $37.5 million.

The allocations have been decried by some as the billionaire developer’s attempt to buy the election, as polls have him at or near the top of the heap. And the city has never seen anything like this tsunami of campaign cash. But while some may find it objectionable, there is nothing illegal about his eight-figure strategy to connect with Angelenos.

With five days until votes are counted, it seems almost certain that Caruso will spend north of $40 million. We enter true multiverse of madness territory when we realize that, by the time a November runoff is completed, the guy could drop $100 million in his effort to succeed Eric Garcetti.

Here is a look at where some of the money has gone, and what it means.

Primary Colors

One wacky thing about blasting $33.96 million is how it compares with the past: It is more than twice what the entire field of candidates spent in the last competitive mayoral primary. In 2013, a clutch of contenders combined to drop $16.6 million in the first round of voting. The money Caruso has shelled out in this cycle is already six times more than the $5.36 million that top spender Wendy Greuel fired off nine years ago.

In fact, if you assume he spends all of the $4 million he recently gave himself—and why wouldn’t he?—that drives Caruso to about $38 million in expenditures. By comparison, every mayoral candidate combined in the last four primaries spent $36.7 million.

Yes, Caruso on his lonesome will likely outspend the dozens of figures who ran in the 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2017 primaries.

Dominating the Field

When you look at the war chests of other current candidates versus Caruso’s, it’s like the old “Bambi Meets Godzilla” short, where a friendly deer frolics in the woods, until suddenly a massive, scaly foot slams down, crushing the creature. Consider: Through May 21, everyone else in the mayoral contest had spent a combined $10.04 million. That includes candidates who dropped out—City Attorney Mike Feuer had spent just over $2 million before leaving and backing Bass. Councilmember Joe Buscaino, who endorsed Caruso, had thrown $1.3 million into the campaign atmosphere.

The second biggest spender in the race, Bass, dropped $2.9 million by May 21. That would be a healthy outlay in any normal election, but so far Caruso had spent $11.70 for each $1 of hers. The $1.45 million spent by de León is through that date, egads, just 4.3% of what Caruso has unleashed.

TV Time

As I wrote before, Caruso’s campaign strategists are sharks. Early on they identified their key to the race—buy every commercial spot available—and have stuck to the program. This began almost immediately after Caruso announced his candidacy on Feb. 11. While other candidates held community events and met a few dozen voters at a time, Caruso used the financial equivalent of a bottomless mimosa to woo the entire city at once. This also took place when many Angelenos were hardly aware of an approaching election.

Because I’m a complete nerd, and I own a calculator, I began adding up where some of the TV money went. Campaign disclosure documents reveal that, from Feb. 15-May 21, Caurso spent $3.4 million just on ads on local station KCBS. He spent another $3.27 million on commercials on KABC. Both are more than what Bass has spent on her entire campaign, and she has been running since September.

Add in KBNC and KTLA, and Caruso has spent $10.8 million on ads on four leading local stations.

That’s literally just the start of the blitz. Caruso did 12 weeks of media buys on Spanish-language stations KMEX and KVEA, combining for $1.2 million. He has spent almost $200,000 for spots on a pair of Korean-language stations.

This doesn’t count the millions Caruso has spent on many other local TV and radio stations, nor the inescapable ads on YouTube and Facebook.

One almost feels for the challengers. By May 21, according to disclosure statements, Bass had spent almost $1.2 million on TV advertising, and de León had shelled out about $800,000.

In the Mail

The bevy of glossy mailers that have hit homes this cycle makes one squirm thinking of the forests razed for political purposes. But when it comes to a campaign, production costs are just the start. In the last month, Team Caruso spent $616,216 with the United States Postal Service.

Here’s another way to think of that: A total of 29 people are on the ballot for eight City Council seats. Just one, Fifth District hopeful Sam Yebri, has raised more money in the entirety of the campaign than Caruso spent on stamps in May.

 

And Yet…

Caruso’s outlay will go down in history, but there is no guarantee that he gets what he wants. While affluent candidates like Michael Bloomberg have bankrolled runs to high office, the person with breathtaking stacks of cash can falter. After all, Meg Whitman in 2010 spent $177 million trying to be governor of California. She lost to Jerry Brown, who spent $36 million.

Ads may be inescapable, but ultimately it is votes, and not dollars, that count.


Stay on top of the latest in L.A. food and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.