You can’t always get what you want, but for special interests in California politics, spending $34 million sure does help.

That’s the amount of unrestricted political spending that industries and unions with regular business in the capitol pumped into legislative races across the state this year.

As CalMatters reported before Election Day, the oil industry, public sector unions and Realtors were the top dispensers of “independent expenditure” in the lead-up to Nov. 3. Unlike donors who contribute directly to candidates, these groups can spend as much as they like propping up or slinging mud at the candidates of their choice, so long as they do so independently of the politicians who benefit.

Most of this year’s legislative cash dump was ladled on just a handful of competitive Assembly and state Senate districts. Of that $34 million total, about $27 million — or 79% — wound up benefiting just 15 candidates.

No surprise, most of those candidates won their respective races. That’s an enviable return on investment for the state’s biggest-spending interest groups. Or maybe all that spending on mailers, phone banking and attack ads did little to actually steer the outcome in those districts and the big spenders just know how to pick a winner.

Either way, now that most of the close contests have been called, it’s time to see how those multimillion dollar bets paid off.

Oil, gas and utilities:
  • Total spending: $7.4 million
  • Win/Loss rate in top five races: 4 out of 5

Oil and gas drillers and refiners and the state’s gas and electric utilities spread their money around this year, dropping independent expenditure into 23 races. But 92% of that was spent supporting just five candidates.

GOP Sen. Ling Ling Chang, the top beneficiary of oil and gas money — and of independent expenditures overall — lost to former Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman in Orange County. That was a rare disappointment for the petroleum industry in what was overwise a very good election season for the industry. Carlos Villapudua eked out a victory for the Stockton Assembly seat, beating a more green-friendly fellow Democrat in Kathy Miller. And two Republicans, Sen. Scott Wilk in Simi Valley and Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Realtor who sits on the Yucaipa school board, won their respective senate races.

Prison Guards:

  • Total spending: $4 million
  • Win/Loss rate in top five races: 4 out of 5

After a lengthy period of electoral hibernation, the guards came roaring back this year, aiming their independent expenditure faucet at two Southern California races.

In Orange County, they spent nearly $1.5 million to alternately support Democrat Dave Min and hammer Republican incumbent and regular public sector union-foe Sen. John Moorlach, a Republican. Min will be going to Sacramento next month.

But the prison guards’ other big play — and one that engendered more controversy — didn’t pan out quite so well. The guards spent more than $1 million supporting Efren Martinez, a little-known Democrat hoping to unseat progressive incumbent and public safety committee chairperson Reggie Jones-Sawyer in south Los Angeles. Martinez had the support of the guards, dialysis companies, pro-charter school groups and police unions. Jones-Sawyer won.


  • Total spending: $2.6 million
  • Win/Loss rate in top five races: 5 out of 5

California’s teachers unions diversified their political investments this cycle, putting money into 66 legislative campaigns. But of the top five, where half of that spending ended up, it was a clean sweep.

Dave Cortese, the labor favorite in a Dem-on-Dem contest in Silicon Valley, beat his challenger Ann Ravel. Democrat Min unseated Moorlach in Orange County and Jones-Sawyer fended off Martinez.

The fifth biggest beneficiary of teacher union cash this cycle was the leader of the Senate, San Diego Democrat Toni Atkins. She isn’t listed in the top 15 because her race wasn’t particularly competitive. But yes, she won too.


  • Total spending: $2.5 million
  • Win/Loss rate in top five races: 4 out of 5

Among the most important lobbying groups on housing policy in California, the Realtors spent the bulk of their 2020 election cash protecting incumbents or building out the capitol’s bullpen of development-friendly lawmakers.

In San Francisco, the group rallied to the defense of Democrat Scott Wiener, one of the Senate’s most influential housing supply boosters who faced a surprisingly strong challenge from Democratic Socialist Jackie Fielder. Down the peninsula, the Realtors backed Cortese, a former developer who has said he supports zoning reform to allow for denser development.

Both Wiener and Cortese won. So did two of the Realtor’s top GOP favorites — Wilk in Simi Valley and Assemblyman Phillip Chen in Diamond Bar. But like the oil industry, the Realtors weren’t able to save incumbent moderate Republican Sen. Chang, who will be replaced by Newman.

* Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail. is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.