Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman don’t appear to have much in common, other than the fact that they are the early leaders in the money race that’s always a key part of getting a major-party nomination for governor of California.
But there’s one thing both ought to understand well as they maneuver in the early portions of the contest to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger in America’s second most visible political post: Early money confers credibility, but it’s no guarantee of ultimate success.
Just ask Norton Simon and Michael Huffington and William Roth and Al Checchi and Jane Harman, all of whom poured many millions of personal dollars into unsuccessful runs for governor or the U.S. Senate. Early financial leaders often lose. And no principally self-funded candidate (Whitman has pumped $19 million into her own campaign so far, with much more likely to come) has ever won a top-of-the-ticket race in California.
That said, it’s far better to have money than not.
For sure, otherwise solid candidates and would-be candidates like Republican Tom Campbell and Democrat Jack O’Connell would love to have the resources a Whitman can dump into her own cause or Brown’s ability to raise funds based on his long history and the name recognition it gives him.
But they don’t. So ex-Congressman Campbell is largely relegated to pushing his message on the Internet and via free media interviews, while state Schools Superintendent O’Connell mostly speaks at education affairs – plenty of them.
Both have offered more specifics than their better-funded rivals, but that won’t matter if they can’t get their mugs on television at crunch time in next spring’s primary election season. And that takes money.
Which brings us to the second-place moneybags in each party’s contest: Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco and Republican state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.
Poizner, a near-billionaire former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has the ability to spend as much as the former eBay auction house chair Whitman, and has so far plunked down almost $5 million of his own. But a far greater percentage of his campaign’s cash on hand comes from others than is the case for rival Whitman, who has never before sought office and who rarely even bothered to vote in the past. (Not that records of non-voting seem to matter much: Schwarzenegger voted in barely half the elections during the decade before he became governor.)
Poizner said while running for insurance commissioner four years ago that he wouldn’t have true credibility unless a major share of his campaign cash came from other donors. Critics see this reasoning as mere rationalizing for an unwillingness to invest really big bucks in his own effort. They call him a cheapskate.
As for Newsom, he’s a millionaire, not a billionaire, his fortune built on a chain of inventive wine stores he founded before entering politics more than 10 years ago. He lacks the cash of a Whitman or a Poizner and his fund-raising ability so far has fallen far short of what ex-Gov., ex-Oakland mayor and current attorney general Brown has displayed even before formally entering the contest. As of the June 30 reporting date, Brown had about $8 million on hand to less than $2 million for Newsom.
Putting that into perspective, Newsom didn’t have much more money at that point than candidates like Dean Florez, a Democratic state senator from the Central Valley town of Shafter who’s running for lieutenant governor, or San Francisco City Attorney Kamala Harris, seeking the Democratic nomination to replace Brown as attorney general.
Running second or third in either party’s money race doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose: witness Gray Davis winning the governor’s office after trailing far behind Congresswoman Harman and airline mogul Checchi on the 1998 money lists. But even at that, Davis spent more than $7 million in the primary season, enough to air an adequate number of TV commercials. Newsom has a long way to go before reaching that level. He’s been staging town halls around the state for months, displaying a dynamic style and bright idealism, but he’s not yet reaching enough voters to matter much. And he trails Brown in early polling, even in his own city.
All of which means it’s now advantage Brown and Whitman, with nothing guaranteed except that Newsom, Poizner and the rest will have to raise money frantically for the next few months or forget about it and possibly settle for some lesser office.