Why Meg Whitman leads Jerry Brown in California

Spending heavily and fresh off a debate with Steve Poizner, eBay millionaire Meg Whitman has leapfrogged former governor Jerry Brown in the race for California governor, according to a new poll.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Former eBay executive Meg Whitman answers a question during a debate with California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for the California Republican gubernatorial primary on Monday. Former governor Jerry Brown trails Whitman in a poll released Wednesday.

Meg Whitman’s millions appear to be paying off. The former eBay CEO has spent mightily in recent months in pursuit of California’s governorship, and she edged out Democrat Jerry Brown in a survey of voters released Wednesday.

According to the latest Field Poll, Ms. Whitman has climbed 17 points since October and gained a slight lead over Mr. Brown, California’s current attorney general and a former two-term governor.

When the poll paired the two in the November election, 46 percent opted for Whitman, while 43 percent picked Brown. State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, Whitman’s competition for the GOP nomination, trailed far behind both candidates. When asked to simulate June's Republican primary, 63 percent of the poll's respondents chose Whitman and 14 percent backed Mr. Poizner.

Political analysts say Whitman’s double-digit jump is largely due to her campaign’s recent statewide advertising surge. The Silicon Valley billionaire has spent a reported $39 million on her campaign, vastly more than either Poizner, also a wealthy former tech executive, or Brown.

Whitman is portraying herself as someone with the business smarts to fix the state’s economic woes. Brown, on the other hand, says he has the sort of political resume needed to undo deep partisan divides in Sacramento.

The virtual tie between the two suggests a heated, high-profile contest in the months ahead to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will leave office amid one of the state's deepest financial crises. And, according to analysts, the Democrats have their work cut out for them if they want to best Whitman in the general election.

The poll does not bode will for Brown, according to Calitics, a California political blog, as Whitman leads in traditionally Democratic Los Angeles County and in California’s Central Valley.

“That's an extremely ominous sign for Democrats, since the governorship cannot be won without taking LA County and running much better in the other SoCal counties and the Central Valley,” writes the blog’s Robert Cruickshank. “Whitman is a juggernaut who is running one of the most effective campaign operations we've seen in this state in a long time,” he wrote. “Brown has to come up with something new with which to fight back.”

Wednesday’s Field Poll results suggest that Whitman, who is running her first political campaign, may soon shift focus to Brown, who doesn’t face any major competition for the Democratic nomination. Brown, a well known figure in both national and California politics, made his intentions to return to the governor's office official earlier this month.

Brown, likewise, may begin more aggressively hitting the campaign trail. Until now, he has been somewhat quiet as Poizner and Whitman do battle ahead of the Republican primary.

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