San Francisco Mayor London Breed is facing one of the most daunting reelection fights in recent memory, and obstacles to winning a second full term are stacking up.
Breed’s approval ratings plummeted coming out of the pandemic, and new polling from the campaign of nonprofit founder Daniel Lurie suggests the mayor would lose badly in a head-to-head. Meanwhile, the city’s projected budget deficit is ballooning and a looming battle over labor negotiations could lead to a backslide in city services if things go sideways.
The mayor’s path to victory will become even more complicated in the next two weeks, as another moderate challenger—former San Francisco Mayor and Supervisor Mark Farrell—is expected to announce his candidacy, making it a four-person race with Supervisor Ahsha Safaí announcing his candidacy last year. A more progressive candidate also seems likely to emerge.
But aside from polling, deficits and a crowded field, one of the biggest issues Breed’s reelection campaign faces between now and November could come down to something as simple as dollars and cents. At the moment, the mayor is looking a bit short on both. And her challengers appear poised to kick off a fundraising arms race unlike anything San Francisco has ever seen.
Breed Falls Behind on Fundraising
Following the unexpected death of Mayor Ed Lee, Breed won the 2018 special election for mayor, which also turned out to be the most expensive mayoral race in San Francisco history with more than $8.4 million spent.
Still nine months out to this November’s election, mayoral campaigns and committees supporting 2024 candidates have already raised more than $4.8 million. And much of that money is not going toward San Francisco’s current mayor.
Breed’s personal reelection campaign raised almost $408,000 last year and an independent committee supporting Breed raised more than $265,120, according to filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission. Combined, those totals are about a sixth of what Lurie’s campaign and a committee supporting his run for mayor have raised since late September.
A closer look at the independent committee supporting the mayor’s reelection shows that $200,000 came from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which might have been a little payback for Breed’s endorsement of his ill-fated presidential run. The remaining $65,000 to the pro-Breed committee came mostly from real estate interests, which also supported a local firefighters committee backing Breed in 2018.
The mayor also put forward Propositions C, E and F on the March ballot to reform policies on housing, public safety and the drug crisis, respectively. The measures—with almost $1.07 million in combined support, including big chunks from billionaires Chris Larsen and Ron Conway—are designed to shape city policy and can’t mention Breed’s reelection campaign. In reality, though, they should be seen as vehicles to solidify the mayor’s messaging ahead of November, potentially giving her momentum if at least two out of three propositions pass.
“Her March ballot measures will deliver even more change and progress, giving police the tools they need, bringing accountability to those who are doing lethal drugs, and creating a thriving new neighborhood Downtown,” said Maggie Muir, the mayor’s campaign manager.
But even when accounting for all of these different Breed-aligned committees, the mayor is still being outraised almost three to one by Lurie-aligned groups.
Lurie’s mayoral campaign, an independent committee backing his run for mayor and a pro-Prop. E committee he formed to reframe the measure as an indictment of Breed’s leadership have combined to raise $4.46 million, according to the most recently available campaign filings with the Ethics Commission.
“That’s an impressive amount of money,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus for San Jose State University’s political science department and a political analyst for NBC Bay Area. “Clearly, people are not happy with the mayor.”
Mayor’s Challengers Tap Into Big Money
A huge chunk of the pro-Lurie money is coming directly from his own family. His mother, Mimi Haas—the widow of Peter Haas, who was the great-grandnephew of Levi Strauss—gave $1 million to a group called “Believe in SF, Lurie for Mayor 2024.”
Meanwhile, his brother Ari Lurie has given $350,000 across two committees, and a mix of San Francisco bluebloods and new money venture capitalists are cutting massive checks in support of Lurie’s bid for mayor.
Trishala Vinnakota, Lurie’s campaign manager, issued a statement saying that his coalition of support comes from him being “the only candidate running to replace City Hall insiders with new ideas and accountable leadership.”
Campaign records show Lurie will likely have the loudest voice when it’s all said and done on Prop. E, which would increase police surveillance tools and place restrictions on how the Police Commission passes new policies. His committee has already raised $660,000 in support of the measure, which was roughly $35,000 more than the mayor’s committee as of Sunday.
A closer look at Lurie’s pro-Prop. E committee filings shows that his committee reported $805,000 in outstanding debts, which means his committee still expects to pick up at least another $145,000 in contributions to break even. That certainly won’t be hard if Lurie keeps getting six-figure contributions like the $100,000 he received from venture capitalist Nellie Levchin on Jan. 22.
Prop. E is essentially an avenue for Lurie to increase his name recognition on the road to November, as almost all San Francisco voters are aware of Breed. Whether their opinion of the mayor is favorable is another story.
Gerston cautioned against “automatically equating money and victory,” but he noted that pro-Lurie money could give the mayor fits if the campaign finance trends persist.
“Presumably, Breed has some capital that goes beyond dollars just by virtue of her incumbency and the network she's established,” Gerston said. “Whether that's enough to keep a challenger like Lurie from winning, that’s the question.”
The expected candidacy of Farrell—a native San Franciscan who also has close ties to many in the investor class—could lead to a splintering of support for Lurie-aligned committees. Officials linked to Farrell’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but his base of supporters is believed to have a fair amount of overlap with Lurie’s. However, the financial reservoirs for potential benefactors are not at risk of running dry.
It’s possible that voters could sour on the staggering amount of money going into the mayor’s race, which is where San Francisco’s public financing program for campaigns could come into play.
A Huge Bill for Taxpayers?
Safaí, the District 11 supervisor who represents the Excelsior and other neighborhoods on the south side of the city, raised more than $333,000 last year, and no outside committee supporting his run for mayor currently exists. However, he expects to hit the threshold to unlock public matching funds, which can climb as high as $1.2 million for mayoral candidates.
“Ahsha doesn’t have any billionaires bankrolling his campaign like Mayor Breed or Daniel Lurie, and over a quarter of his contributions are $100 or less,” said Derek Jansen, Safaí’s campaign manager. “The strength of our grassroots fundraising underscores the city’s desire for change, while affirming that regular, working people trust Ahsha to deliver for them. People will decide this election, not money.”
It’s likely that all of the major candidates for mayor will hit the necessary fundraising thresholds to accept public matching funds, putting city taxpayers on the hook for $4.8 million in spending across just four candidates—and perhaps even $6 million if someone like Supervisor Aaron Peskin were to join the fray. Meanwhile, outside committees seem certain to raise the race’s price tag to unprecedented levels.
There are some things money can’t buy. Time will tell if the San Francisco Mayor’s Office is one of them.