As they near the finish of their big-money race to become the Republican nominee for governor, one name has suddenly started popping up whenever Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman try to sway voters.
It’s not Goldman Sachs, the scandal-plagued banking house where Whitman got sweetheart deals and was once a director and where Poizner, the current state insurance commissioner, has also had dealings. Rather, these two are talking more and more about Jerry Brown and who has the best chance to beat him in November.
Brown has to be loving their chatter, even as he keeps quiet about it. He’s spent almost nothing and done little campaigning while becoming the all-but-certain Democratic nominee for the job he held in the 1970s and early ‘80s.
The talk about Brown began when Whitman’s chief strategist Mike Murphy lamented that as polls showed Poizner closing in on Whitman, “The one person enjoying this more than anyone else is Jerry Brown.” Moments later, he allowed that “a vote for Steve Poizner is really in many ways a vote for Jerry Brown because Commissioner Poizner has made himself completely unelectable in the general election.”
In a primary where the candidates are doing anything they can to appear the most conservative, this was an odd claim. In effect, Murphy was saying Whitman’s positions are a tad more centrist than Poizner’s. This at the same time Whitman’s commercials claim ad nauseum that Poizner is a closet lefty.
A day later, after the state Democratic Party began running an ad blasting Whitman but not Poizner, Whitman campaign senior adviser Rob Stutzman griped that “The ad is proof positive the labor unions and Jerry Brown fear Meg Whitman.
There’s only one reason Whitman’s handlers would make those statements: Private polling has shown many Republican voters are more concerned about finding someone to defeat Brown than they are about who is farther right than whom.
Not to be outdone in the “my candidate will do best against Jerry Brown” department, Poizner strategist Stuart Stevens scoffs at the notion that his man has staked out positions so far to the right that he would have little chance against Brown next fall.
“I can’t wait for the Poizner/Brown debates,” Stevens said. “They’re gonna be classics.”
So far, the strategy followed by Stevens and Poizner has proven pretty effective among Republican voters. Once down in the polls by as much as 50 points while Whitman conducted an unopposed advertising blitz, Poizner has now all but evened the race. Chortled Stevens, “Shockingly, we actually understood when Election Day was.” And didn’t waste very much money early on.
Right now, both Republicans trail the Democrat even before he’s spent his first nickel on advertising. Which appears to frustrate Whitman’s campaign more than Poizner’s.
Meanwhile, Brown’s campaign offers no clue about when he will start spending the $16 million-plus he’s raised during the primary election season.
Will he stay mostly silent through the summer or will he follow the strategy he employed effectively in 1978, when he won reelection handily over Republican Evelle Younger, then the state attorney general? Back then, Younger figured nothing much political could happen during June, just after he’d won a hard-fought primary battle. So off he flew to Hawaii for a well-deserved vacation.
By the time he returned, he was hopelessly behind. Brown, who then as now had husbanded his money during a primary season where he had no serious competition, ran a series of television ads and took a lead that proved insurmountable. This was one time when early spending paid off in a big way.
Brown and his campaign manager Steve Glazer won’t say whether a rerun of that June blitz is in store this year. “We aren’t about to divulge strategy right now,” Glazer said. But Brown, in spite of the name recognition that comes with being a former governor and the son of a governor, will still have to introduce himself anew to the vast number of voters who were small children or not even alive when he held the office. The question is when he should do it.
Another obvious reality well known to both Republicans in the race is that Brown will raise at least as much in the general election cycle as he did through the primaries, so even though they know they can outspend him, he’ll have a minimum of $35 million – more than enough to get his message out – plus whatever unions or the national Democratic Party might spend on his behalf.
Which means there is good reason for Whitman, Poizner and their Republican supporters to keep an eye on Brown even as they race to the primary election wire.
Mirror Contributing Writeropinion@smmirror.com