How to Run for Office in California

How to Run for Office and Win - This Guide Covers It All [2021]

Interested in running for office in California? The idea can seem overwhelming at first, especially when you’re not sure where to start. That’s where we come in—we’ve put together a collection of resources, data, and information specific to California to jumpstart your research. Armed with the information in this post, you can start building your political campaign today.

How are people voting in California?

California is a solid blue state in terms of voting, though several seats were lost in the 2020 elections due to ticket-splitting.

According to the Historical Voter Registration Stats for 2021, California has 22 million registered voters, accounting for 88% of the population. This percentage is an increase from 79% for 2019 and 72% for 2001, highlighting the general trend of increased voter participation over the last 10 years.

Among all registered voters, 10 million (46%) are Democrats, and 5 million (24%) are Republicans. While the number of Democratic voters has been growing steadily over the last decade, Republican voters are heading to the polls in roughly the same numbers. Both parties gained voters between February 2019 and February 2021. Meanwhile, other independent parties lost voters.

Some of these voter demographics are expected to change as a result of redistricting following the 2020 census.

As of April 2021, Gavin Newsom (D) is the Governor of California, and Democrats hold the majority in the CA State Senate and Assembly.

What office should I run for?

Before you can officially begin running for office, you must decide what office you want to run for. You can run at the federal level for President of the United States if you’re setting your sights high, for instance. Or you can run to represent California in the U.S. Congress or U.S. House of Representatives.

Looking to run for an office in the State of California? You can run for various positions in the executive, judicial, or legislative branches of state government. You also have plenty of local-level positions to consider.

Here’s a list of state- and local-level positions to consider when running for office in California:

  • Governor
  • Lt. Governor
  • Attorney General
  • Secretary of State
  • Mayor
  • City Councilmember

This list isn’t exhaustive, so make sure to check with local and state resources (many of which are linked throughout this post) to see if there’s a position that aligns with your current political passions and aspirations.

What am I passionate about?

To know which office you want to pursue, focus on what issues matter to you. What issues are you passionate about? Are there any areas you specifically want to see change? What skills and solutions do you offer? Once you know the answers to those questions, you’ll find it easier to narrow down where within the government you’ll be the best fit.

As an example, if you run for a federal office, you’ll be able to work on a variety of issues that impact the whole nation. Here’s just a short list of possibilities:

  • Federal student loan forgiveness
  • Federal minimum wage laws
  • National-level voter rights protections
  • Education spending
  • National safety-net programs
  • Immigration
  • Healthcare

Want to shape policies a little closer to home? You can run for offices at the county, district, or city levels. There, you’d be able to shape policies that deal with more local issues. Here’s a short list of example issues:

  • Proper funding and equipment for fire departments
  • Safety and maintenance of infrastructure
  • Quality of air, water, housing, etc. in your state, county, or city

Who would I be running against?

A key factor when deciding what political office to run for is looking at who has already been elected into the positions that interest you. The California Secretary of State site offers a handy tool for you to look up this information in the form of statewide election results. You can find a breakdown of the California election results dating back to 1990. Examining this info will help you get an idea of who’s currently in office on the federal, state, and local levels and how long they’ve held their political offices.

You can also access the Secretary of State’s Upcoming Elections page. There, you can find out who’s up for re-election and when. There’s even a section that provides information on candidates for the upcoming elections. For example, here’s a list of certified candidates for an upcoming special primary election.

Why is knowing who holds the current office important? Well, it ultimately helps you gauge your chances of winning if you decide to run against any current political officeholder. For example, it’s usually must harder to run against an incumbent than X. And if you’re competing against another Democrat, competition for the same seat within your party will divide your potential voter base during the primaries.

After you’ve determined who holds the office you’re running for, look into their campaign history. How competitive was their race? You can use the election results page linked above to see voter results.

What was their budget? What about their donor history (which gives you some insight into the amount of campaign cash you can raise)? At the Federal level, the FEC collects campaign finance data that will show you how much a candidate raised, how much they spent, and how much cash they had on hand for each quarter of their campaign.

The California Secretary of State website also has a Campaign Finance page that will show you financial information for state and local candidates and elected officials. The page will also give you information on top contributors in the state, offering some insight into donor history at the local level.

When should I run for office?

You’ve researched the office you want to run for and understand who you’re running against. Now you’ll need to find out when the next election for that office takes place. To get you started, Ballotpedia has an interactive elections calendar that lets you see when primary, general, or special elections are being held for federal, state, and local offices.

As mentioned above, California also has an Upcoming Elections page that will help you know the dates of the next elections. You can also check out an Election Dates & Resources page that will help you know what deadlines are approaching.

The California County Elections Office page is there as well. On the page, you can find the contact information for the election board in your county. You can then contact the board to request any information or election materials you might need.

What do I need to set up my campaign?

You’ve identified what office you’re running for, who you’re running against, and when the next election occurs. Now it’s time to register as a candidate through the State of California. To do that, you’ll need to fill out a ballot designation worksheet and submit it to the California Secretary of State. Don’t forget to check the qualifications page to ensure you can actually get on the ballot.

Running for a more local-level race? The county elections office for your area will have more information and ways to register as a candidate for local races. Contact the elections office for your county if you have any questions.

After you’ve registered to be on the ballot in California, you’ll need an Employer Identification Number (EIN). This number will allow you to open a campaign bank account to collect contributions and pay your campaign staff salaries. With an EIN and a bank account, you’re ready to start fundraising.

How do I organize my fundraising?

Political campaigns are required to follow campaign finance laws, making it essential for you to have a compliance team and a payment processing system in place. ActBlue and Numero are two payment processor services that can help your campaign get ahead in organizing your campaign’s contributions.

Donor CRMs—such as Numero or NGP—are instrumental in organizing and facilitating communication with all of your donors in a number of ways.

What are the contribution limits for political campaigns in California?

Political campaigns can’t just collect endless contributions. Limits are placed at the federal, state, and local levels to ensure that no single person or source provides too much to a political campaign.

Below you’ll find limitations as outlined by the FEC and the State of California. Limits are defined by election. That means the limits renew for the primary, general, special, and run-off election cycles.

Federal contribution limits:

The FEC defines the contribution limits for federal elections as follows:

This is a graph that outlines the contribution limits set by FEC for federal elections.
This is a graph that outlines the contribution limits set by FEC for federal elections.

State and local contribution limits:

Unlike New York, which calculates campaign contribution limits using a formula based on population, the local contribution limits in California seem pretty straightforward.

This is a chart that outlines the contribution limits set for the state of California's state and local elections.
This is a chart that outlines the contribution limits set for the state of California’s state and local elections.

*Please note that local contribution limits may vary by county and city. The limits listed here apply unless local laws dictate different limitations. Contact your local county elections office to find out if your county or city has different contribution limitations in place.

Ready to run?

Running for office in California ultimately requires you to know your local government. You need to understand not just the political office you’re running to fill but also what kind of competition you’ll face and what kind of budget you need to succeed. Knowing all of this information up front helps you better understand the scope of your political campaign—and that will get you much closer to winning compared to entering the race without the proper information on hand.

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