By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009 11:14 AM
Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman's spotty record as a voter -- she was never registered before 2002, according to reporting by the Sacramento Bee -- has become a major issue as she seeks the Republican nomination for governor of California in 2010.
"This news is disqualifying to a candidate for governor, her campaign knows it, and they are on the defensive," concluded Jarrod Agen, communications director for California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner who is challenging Whitman for the GOP nod. Poizner's campaign has also released a 30-second video slamming Whitman for her missed votes; "Whitman didn't vote for one president, congressman, senator or governor," says the ad's narrator. "She didn't skip some votes, as she claimed, she skipped every one -- for 28 years."
Whitman, who told the Bee that she had been registered before 2002 and challenged reporters to "go find it," exacerbating what was already a very tenuous situation for her candidacy. "It is a big deal and her handling of it is making it worse," said one California Republican who is not affiliated with a candidate.
Politicians running for elected office with spotty (or nonexistent) private voting records are nothing new but the damage incurred by that lack of attendance at the ballot box is mixed.
A few of the more recent -- and well-known -- examples of politicians running for elected office with spotty (or nonexistent) private voting records:
¿ Al Checchi: The former Northwest Airlines chairman spent tens of millions on his race for the California Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1998 but voters ultimately rejected him -- he won just 13 percent of the primary vote -- due at least in part to his seeming disinterest in voting prior to his bid. (He didn't vote in the 1994 Democratic primary and missed casting a ballot in four out of the previous six state elections.)
¿ Jon Corzine: Corzine, who is in a battle for a second term as governor of New Jersey, had to overcome the fact that he hadn't voted in a Democratic primary since 1988 and had missed three general elections in that time when he first ran for the Senate in 2000. He did it by spending more than $60 million of his own money.
¿ John Edwards: When Edwards, a successful trial lawyer, decided to challenge Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) in the 1998 election cycle, the Democrat had voted in only half of the elections over the previous seven years -- missing the chance to cast a ballot in the 1994 Republican tidal-wave election among others. North Carolina voters didn't seem to mind, electing Edwards and then watching as he ran twice -- unsuccessfully -- for president in 2004 and 2008.
¿ Bill Frist: The former Senate majority leader had never voted before 1988, despite being able to do so since 1971. Now-Sen. Bob Corker, who unsuccessfully challenged Frist in the 1994 GOP primary, ran ads slamming Frist for his inconsistent voting record. "Bill Frist didn't vote for 18 years, and he's never voted in a Republican primary," said the ad's narrator. "Now he wants to be our Republican nominee for the United States Senate. You've got to be kidding." Voters didn't buy it -- handing Frist victories in the GOP primary and over appointed Sen. Jim Sasser (D) in the general election.
(Are there other examples we missed? The comments section awaits.)
With the Whitman voting controversy still developing, it's hard to know whether she will ultimately wind up in the political scrap heap with Checchi or will be able to turn her lack of votes into a talking point that reinforces her outsider image (unlikely but not unheard of).
How things turn out for Whitman depends -- largely -- on two factors.
The first is whether or not voters want a change in the sort of people they elect badly enough to opt for someone who has not regularly (if at all) taken part in the political process. While that argument worked for the likes of Edwards and Frist, it's a bit more complicated for Whitman to sell due to the fact that the current governor of California -- Arnold Schwarzenegger -- is a celebrity Republican candidate who missed lots of votes before being elected. (Sound familiar?)
The second factor is how much Whitman is willing to spend of her own fortune to get elected and whether or not Poizner or any other candidate can come close to matching those sums.
If Whitman is committed to spending $100 million of her own money on the race -- we have heard estimates both higher and lower than that -- she may be able to turn this voting record controversy into a blip on the radar. Simply because it is a major issue with the political chattering class does not mean that the average vote is paying ANY attention to the story or is even aware of it.
Whitman's mega-millions -- if spent properly on television -- could go a long way to ensuring that when voters hear about her voting record (and Poizner will make sure they do) that there is lots of context provided that paints her in a favorable light.
Whitman's guide in this strategy could be Corzine, whose personal fortune helped him overcome a series of negative stories and claim the Senate seat by three percentage points.
For the untested Whitman, this voting story represents the first -- and biggest -- test of a process-heavy campaign that has been defined to date by the amount of money she is spending and the number of consultants she has hired.
If she can't find a way to get past it, her long-awaited bid may never get off the ground.