Meg Whitman's team says she is doing what it takes for a Republican and first-time gubernatorial candidate to win in California, where Democrats have a 13-point voter-registration edge.
LOS ANGELES —
To spend any time at all in California these days is to feel the gale force of Meg Whitman’s money.
The billionaire former CEO of eBay is waging the most expensive campaign ever for a nonpresidential candidate. Republican Whitman has poured about $140 million of her personal fortune into the race so far, outspending her Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, by better than 10 to 1.
Whitman has carpet-bombed the airwaves, with more than 1,300 television spots a day, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Joe Manchin's machinations reach a crescendo as he distances himself from his party while cutting deals on its agenda — all in public view
- In Idaho, 49th in U.S. COVID vaccination, one county stands out as success story
- Alec Baldwin berates daughter, 11
- Some fast-food items contain chemicals linked to serious health problems, study shows
- Men shot by Kyle Rittenhouse can be called 'rioters' and 'looters' but not 'victims,' judge rules
What could get Whitman over the goal line in a close game, however, are some of her quieter moves.
She has set up nearly 90 campaign offices — not only in GOP strongholds like Shasta County, but in such Democratic bastions as liberal Oakland and Latino east Los Angeles. Her multilingual phone banks have reached households that speak Russian, Farsi and Korean; her Spanish-language ads blanket billboards and bus stops; she is running television spots in Mandarin and Cantonese.
Using state-of-the-art microtargeting software, her campaign trawls mountains of publicly and commercially available data, searching for prospective supporters by their voting histories, their income and ethnicity, the cars they drive, the magazines they read, the catalogs they shop from, even the groceries they buy.
A college-educated independent in his 20s may get a brochure designed to look like an iPad that features information about Whitman’s record as a Silicon Valley superstar; a construction worker in his 30s who votes only sporadically might get one that focuses on her promise to create more highway construction jobs.
Whitman’s team says she is doing what it takes for a Republican and first-time candidate to win in a state where Democrats have a 13-point voter-registration edge, especially against a former governor who won his first statewide office almost 40 years ago and whose father Edmund G. “Pat” Brown also served as governor.
“The Brown family name is the most powerful name in California,” said Whitman’s chief strategist, Mike Murphy. “It’s like running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts.”
Will it all pay off, or is Whitman about to become an even more spectacular failure than such businessmen-turned-candidates as airline executive Al Checchi, oilman Michael Huffington and financier Bill Simon, all of whom spent big and fell short in California?
Whitman would seem the ideal candidate for this year’s anti-incumbent environment, except that California tried electing an independent-minded Republican outsider the last time it chose a new governor — and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s approval rating now stands in the low 20s.
Whitman promises to bring sound business principles to government, and she hammers Brown as a relic of its failure. She wants to eliminate a capital-gains tax that she says drives investors from the state, cut 33,000 workers from the state payroll and put new ones into 401(k)s, rather than pensions.
Yet it can be difficult to envision how she could get all that done in a state where the legislature was 100 days late in passing a budget full of gimmicks.
While her message has been disciplined — focusing around jobs, elementary and high-school education and cutting government spending — the two candidates have traded leads in the polls, and the latest suggest that Brown is pulling ahead slightly.
Recently, each campaign has gotten caught up in a distractoversy: Whitman’s over hiring and then firing an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper; Brown over a recording of someone in his campaign referring to Whitman as a “whore.”
Brown is getting help from his union allies, who have spent nearly $14 million on his behalf. One of them, Service Employees International Union, recently announced a $5 million ad campaign targeting Latinos. But some Democrats are nervous that they are seeing nothing on their side to match Whitman’s operation. Brown has conserved his own cash for a big advertising push at the end. Democratic operative Garry South, who was the top strategist for former governor Gray Davis, said Whitman has built “the most extensive absentee-ballot program and get-out-the-vote program that California has ever seen in any race whatsoever.”
Yet even some Republicans worry that the shock-and-awe of Whitman’s television ad campaign has simply become too much for California voters.
“She may have been a little overexposed in the summer,” said Kenneth Khachigian, a veteran Republican strategist who is advising another former Silicon Valley executive, Carly Fiorina, in her bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. “She used the same template over and over again, and I think people started to tune out.”
Whitman had come to eBay in 1988 after a series of big jobs at more traditional corporations, where she managed brands that ranged from Stride Rite shoes to FTD flowers to Mr. Potato Head. When Whitman got a look at the 2-year-old online auction business — 30 percent growth a month and gross margins of 85 percent — she suddenly saw the potential.
Over the 10 years she guided eBay, it became an $8 billion behemoth with 15,000 employees and 300 million registered users. Whitman acknowledged what she is attempting now is a very different kind of startup.
“In business, there are very measurable results all the time, and people can be held accountable for those results,” she told the female executives. “In campaigns, and actually in governing, the results are not as clear. There is not nearly as much accountability. And in the case of a campaign, the only result that anyone really focuses on is the end result: Did you win or lose?”
To win, Whitman calculated that she had to have 90 percent of Republican voters — “so you have to get the base of the party excited” — and 60 percent of independents. Her best shot at doing that was to make inroads with three groups that hadn’t been voting Republican lately: women, Latinos and 18-to 29-year-olds.
One of the proudest achievements of the Whitman campaign sits in a strip mall near the end of an offramp in east Los Angeles. Placards in the windows promise: Mejor trabajos, Crear empleos, Mejorar nuestra escuelas.
It is a bright new campaign office, one Whitman’s team claims to be the first any Republican statewide candidate has opened in the neighborhood for at least 30 years. It is also a statement of how serious Whitman is about her stated goal of picking up 40 percent of the Latino vote, which is about double the percentage that Republican candidates have recently won in California.
Every few days bring a new group of demonstrators to the sidewalk out front: domestic workers who want to highlight the controversy over Whitman’s former housekeeper, young Latinos dressed in caps and gowns protesting her opposition to legislation that would legalize undocumented immigrants who get an education or join the military.
But Tuesday night, about 30 people, almost all of them Latino or Asian, gathered around a television in the east Los Angeles office to watch their candidate in her final debate against Brown.
Among them were Christina Garcia, a 43-year-old Realtor, and her 65-year-old father, Carlos Garcia, a Realtor’s assistant, who said they are among the rare Republicans in their neighborhood of El Sereno.
Carlos added that he had worked on Jerry Brown’s first campaign for governor. “But I know better now,” he said. “Entrepreneurship is the only way we are going to make something happen here in L.A.”
People like the Garcias represent the return on Whitman’s vast investment. In a couple of weeks, she may become the return on theirs.
Washington Post special correspondent Michelle E. Thomas contributed to this report.