Money and anger dominate primary campaigning

Posted on June 6, 2010


California Republicans racing Saturday to clinch their party’s nominations tried to ride the frustration of an angry electorate, claiming as they campaigned across the state that they represent their party’s best chance to defeat Democrats who have been in power for decades. From corporate executives to conservative activists to career politicians, the GOP candidates in the top-of-the-ticket races to be decided Tuesday have strikingly different resumes. But the personal wealth employed by several of them has sharply altered the momentum of the races. The Republican governor’s contest is the most expensive California primary in history, and money tilted the standings in the closing weeks of the Senate race. Despite their differences, the candidates are essentially making the same argument: that they are the most lethal threats to gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown or incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, despite the Democratic Party’s substantial edge among California voters.

“The common thread is, ‘I’m not part of the establishment,’ ” said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College government professor and former national GOP official. “They’re all saying they’re a break from politics as usual.”

The Republican gubernatorial and Senate races have drawn the most attention this primary season. Among the Democrats, only token opposition has emerged to challenge Brown in the governor’s race and three-term incumbent Boxer in the Senate race. Tuesday’s ballot will also decide party nominations for statewide offices, legislative seats, local measures and a smattering of ballot propositions. Money has played a prominent role in many races. Former Facebook executive Chris Kelly used $12 million of his money to run for the Democratic nomination for attorney general; Pacific Gas & Electric has spent $46 million to support Proposition 16, which would require a two-thirds vote for municipalities trying to get into the electric business; and Mercury Insurance spent $16 million to support Proposition 17, which would alter rules on car insurance. But nowhere has it held greater sway than in the governor’s race, where Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner had spent a combined $103 million by late May, nearly all of it drawn from their vast personal wealth. That figure is sure to rise by millions once spending from the final two and a half weeks is tallied. Whitman, a billionaire, has contributed $71 million to her effort. Her spending led Poizner, a multimillionaire who has invested $25 million in his campaign, to accuse Whitman of trying to buy the nomination.

“Money talks,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.

Personal funds also played a role in the Senate race, with Carly Fiorina moving into the lead in polls as she spent $5.5 million on her campaign. Her opponents, Tom Campbell and Chuck DeVore, were operating on far smaller budgets. Wealthy or not, the GOP candidates are counting on the electorate’s sour mood about incumbents to ease their path. Democrats Boxer and Brown have a combined 59 years in elective office. The top two races have pivoted around GOP efforts to cast that as a weakness to voters who are dismayed by the economy and question whether politicians in Sacramento and Washington have lost their way. Whitman, the former EBay chief executive, and Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, have painted themselves as political outsiders whose corporate know-how will help them reform tangled bureaucracies. Poizner, the state insurance commissioner, and DeVore, a state Assemblyman, have tried to tap the voter rage typified by the “tea party” movement. And former congressman and academic Campbell has argued that his combination of detailed policy positions, fiscal conservatism and social moderation make him the ideal general-election Republican.

Polls indicate that Whitman and Fiorina’s messages — and the ads fueled by their personal wealth — are resonating. Whitman led Poizner by 24 points in the recent Los Angeles Times/USC poll, and Fiorina led Campbell by 15 points, with DeVore trailing. A Field Poll released Saturday showed DeVore closing in on Campbell. On Saturday, the buoyant frontrunners in both races looked ahead to the general election.

Whitman appeared at rallies in Escondido and Fullerton, where she fired at Brown. “Jerry Brown was already governor, 35 years ago, and it was not a great run,” she told supporters gathered on a patio surrounded by shops in downtown Fullerton. Later, she added, “If we elect Jerry Brown as governor of this state, a Democrat with a Democratic Legislature, you will not recognize California. Taxes will be higher, businesses will continue to leave, we will continue to be the welfare state and the truth is we have got to make sure that does not happen.”

Near Sacramento, a confident Fiorina rallied her troops in the Senate race, thanking them for bypassing the beautiful weather to call voters on her behalf. “With your help, we’ll be having a hell of a party on Tuesday night,” she said, flashing two thumbs up to about 30 volunteers gathered at a recreation center in Gold River. Speaking to reporters, she criticized Boxer’s positions on national security, terrorism and immigration. “Her policies are part of what’s driving this state into bankruptcy,” Fiorina said.

The underdogs in both races tried to persuade supporters that they could see a path to victory. “We are the underdogs, of course, and we’re being outspent 4 to 1,” Poizner told a group of young volunteers in Santa Ana who had been roped into precinct-walking by a campaign worker’s brother. But the gubernatorial hopeful also predicted “some good positive momentum” as late-deciding voters learn of his positions on issues such as Proposition 13 and abortion.

DeVore, meanwhile, said expected low voter turnout and the enthusiasm of his supporters mean he is not out of the running for Senate. “This low turnout is going to completely upend or overturn all the polls,” he told more than 100 supporters who phoned into a conference call with the candidate. “We will defy expectations.”

The third Senate candidate, Campbell, spent part of Saturday speaking to supporters in Saratoga, near San Jose.

With their lineup unofficially set, top-of-the-ticket Democrats and their allies in organized labor were also gearing up Saturday for a bruising general election battle against opponents with unprecedented amounts of personal money to spend. A sign of the tension going forward occurred at both Whitman events, when protestors were physically removed from the rallies. In Fullerton, protestors were thrown against a wall before being pushed outside an iron gate, which was locked behind them. A Whitman aide described them as “rabble-rousers.”

With the battles brewing, “Boxer and Brown both realize they have real contests and are not going to wait,” Pitney said.

Boxer proved that Saturday. After touring a new $13.5-million aircraft rescue and firefighting facility at Los Angeles International Airport that was funded mostly by federal stimulus money, the senator lashed out at Fiorina. She let fly a host of criticisms: Fiorina laid off tens of thousands of workers and shipped jobs overseas as head of Hewlett-Packard; she failed to vote for much of her life; she opposes abortion rights and supports offshore drilling — the opposite of most Californians’ views — and would allow people on the no-fly terrorism watch list to purchase handguns. “This is the clearest choice in the nation,” Boxer said. “She is so out of step with California voters.”

As the primary election comes down to its final days, radio and television stations are swamped with political ads. Voters hoping for a respite after Tuesday’s primary will be disappointed: A coalition of labor unions plans to start advertising against Whitman the following day.

“For all practical purposes, the general election campaign has already started,” said Dan Schnur, head of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “It doesn’t look like many people on either side are going to be taking summer vacations.”,0,2500757,full.story

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