On the surface, this fall’s campaign for governor seemed to begin in earnest almost exactly one year ago, when Republican Meg Whitman opened the radio ad campaign that turned into a key part of her successful drive for the Republican nomination to be California’s next governor.
About that time, Democratic state Attorney General Jerry Brown was making fund-raising pitches in the conference rooms of law firms and the parlors of homes all around the state.
In the year since, one-time eBay chief executive Whitman has spent almost $150 million, the great bulk from her own checkbook. Brown, who spent nothing while beating back onetime Democratic hopefuls like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, had spent less than $1 million as of Labor Day, while union-financed committees put out about $9 million on his behalf.
Even though one poll (the Rasmussen Reports automated survey which canvasses via robotic phone calls) in late August showed Whitman leading by eight points, the finding was unique and questionable. The bottom line is that this race is still wide open and has yet to become truly serious.
How can it not yet be serious when so much cash and energy has been expended on it?
That’s easy. Neither candidate has yet shown Californians a credible way out of their perpetual budget crises and neither has demonstrated that the unemployment nostrums they offer are worth as much as the paper they’re printed on.
Recent Whitman ads, for instance, call for setting up a statewide grand jury to go after waste and fraud in government spending, citing existing government reports that pointed out specific instances of fraud or profligacy. She never says how much that might cost. So no one knows if the bureaucracy needed to support her grand jury would cost more than any savings it might spur.
Whitman ads also call for investing an additional $1 billion in the state’s public university and college systems, a fine idea. But she says she’d finance this by cutting back welfare fraud and requiring work for welfare. Three problems: no one has ever found as much as $1 billion per year in welfare fraud anywhere, including California. And the workfare program set up under ex-Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s has been decimated by budget cuts over the last two years. Plus, it turns out if California cuts $1 billion in welfare costs, it will lose about that much in federal refunds. How would this help the budget?
Brown, meanwhile, has yet to offer any specific budget solutions, saying only that if elected, he will start meeting immediately with all state legislators regardless of party to work out solutions. How will those meetings create more state funds, especially since Brown often pledges never to raise taxes without a full vote of the people – who roundly rejected a tax increase in a special election last year?
No wonder this race is virtually even in most polls. Neither candidate has given voters much reason for loyalty.
That may explain some of the polling oddities in this race. At midsummer, two surveys showed both candidates with support substantially below where it was just after the June primary election. Onetime supporters of both Brown and Whitman had drifted away into the undecided column at least for awhile.
Later surveys show most of that support coming back to both candidates, but the later polls are questionable enough that Whitman campaign manager Mike Murphy called all the summertime surveys “wet cement.”
Wet cement is a good phrase for the entire campaign at this point. It awaits one candidate putting firm footprints on it, something neither will accomplish by blasting the other, as ads aired by and for both campaigns have done so far.
Brown says he will do that. But he’ll have to move fast. With about $40 million to spend between now and Election Day, he would be wise to spend much of his war chest before mid-October, when many voters start casting absentee ballots. It’s a short time span to capture voters’ attention and make the compelling case that he has not yet presented.
Meanwhile, billionaire Whitman will surely match or exceed whatever Brown spends, just as she outspent primary election rival Steve Poizner, a rival self-funded candidate, by about a 3-1 margin.
Those ad campaigns are likely to cancel each other out, which might let the matter be decided in the two, maybe three, debates the candidates have agreed to.
For sure, voters will see snippets of the late September and early October encounters the rest of this fall even if they don’t watch the actual debates.
The hope is that Whitman and Brown don’t waste their debate time calling each other liars and flops, as their commercials so often have. For Californians want real answers, not the flawed nostrums they’ve been offered so far. Whoever presents solid solutions first just might be the eventual winner.