California governor's race: All about the money?

Personal wealth is both an asset and drawback for GOP candidates in the California governor's race. Republican billionaire Meg Whitman has put another $20 million into her campaign.

By , Staff writer

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    GOP frontrunner Meg Whitman shown in this December 7, 2009 file photo, threw another $20 million to her campaign to win the Republican primary slated for June 8.
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    Without any active campaigning, former governor and current state attorney general Jerry Brown, shown in this Dec. 24, 2009 file photo, is leading Meg Whitman by 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent.
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With California's gubernatorial primaries months away and candidates still vague about their campaign platforms, wealth is becoming a key factor in the race.

Last week, GOP frontrunner Meg Whitman threw another $20 million to her campaign to win the Republican primary slated for June 8. In doing so, the former CEO of eBay passed airline mogul Al Checchi’s record for self-contributions to California governor races. Mr. Checchi spent about $38.9 million of his own money in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 1998. Ms. Whitman's personal contributions to her campaign now totals $39 million.

But all that spending may be putting some voters off.

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“Millionaires and billionaires … that’s all we ever get around this state,” says housewife Joan Smiley, sitting at a local coffee shop and reading a newspaper report about Whitman’s cash infusion.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) also put his Hollywood millions into winning the governorship in 2003. The latest Field Poll shows his ratings – and state fortunes – to be worse than when he took over.

“I just don’t want this state to get another wealthy, do-nothing, incompetent at the top,” says Ms. Smiley.

How much wealth remains a factor in the race will depend on how candidates play the issue, says Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. “Wealthy candidates don’t do well if they can’t show competence,” he says.

Whitman's spending has been lambasted by Republican rival and state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, who trails her in the polls. “She thinks she can buy the race through television and radio advertising?” he asked, in the San Jose Mercury News.

But Mr. Poizner himself is the fourth-largest self-contributor in the history of state governors' races, contributing $19.2 million of his Silicon Valley millions to his campaign.

For now, the GOP candidates' spending seems to be benefiting the Democrats. Without any active campaigning, former governor and current state attorney general Jerry Brown is leading Whitman by 4 points, 43 percent to 39 percent, according to a recent Rasmussen survey. That’s a significant change since November, when the two were tied at 41 percent each.

How wealth can help candidates

Still, wealth is not necessarily a negative. It depends how the economy is doing come Election Day, and how candidates play the other issues, analysts say.

“Some people may resent candidates who pay for their own campaigns, but self-financers can claim to be independent of special interests,” says Jack Pitney, political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. “I grew up in Nelson Rockefeller’s New York. People knew one thing about Rocky: He couldn’t possibly be on the take, since he already had more money than anybody else.”

Wealth also helps with name recognition. Poizner holds statewide office, but relatively few Californians are familiar with him, notes Mr. Pitney. He also points to Chuck DeVore, an Orange County assemblyman running for US Senate who, without great personal wealth, is having trouble attracting statewide media attention.

“California TV stations give almost zero coverage to state politics,” says Pitney. “Schwarzenegger gets air time because he’s the Terminator, not because he’s the governor.”

Mr. Brown, a two-term governor, has high name recognition, but analysts worry Californians won’t recognize him.

“Many Californians probably carry a mental image of the Jerry Brown of the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s,” says Pitney. “I suspect the first time he debates his opponent on TV, many viewers will ask themselves, ‘Why is that old, bald guy standing where Jerry Brown is supposed to be?’ ”

The Scott Brown factor

The race is beginning to shake out in other ways. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome, a Democrat, has dropped out after falling behind in the polls, while GOP contender and former congressman Tom Campbell has decided to run against Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) for the US Senate seat instead.

The possible entrance of US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California into the governor’s race – although she has expressed no interest so far – could change everything, say analysts. And the dynamics of national politics will also play into the California governor’s race.

“Jerry Brown must be less confident today of victory than he was last week," Mr. Stern of the Center for Government Studies says, citing Republican Scott Brown’s recent victory in Massachusetts’ Senate race.

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