Meg Whitman's $139 million could turn Calif. governor's vote

In an attempt to appeal to California's non-English speaking population, GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman is airing ads in Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.
By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; 10:42 PM

LOS ANGELES - To spend any time at all in California these days is to feel the gale force of Meg Whitman's money.

Sure, California has seen its share of wealthy novice politicians from the business world, most of whom have failed. But the billionaire former chief executive of eBay is waging a campaign for governor unlike any before, both in its resources and in a no-voter-left-behind strategy that no Republican here has ever tried.

Like earlier big-money candidates in this vast state, Whitman has carpet-bombed the airwaves. Lately, she has been running more than 1,300 television spots a day, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political advertising.

It is the most expensive campaign ever for a nonpresidential election. Whitman has poured $139 million of her personal fortune into the race, outspending her Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, by better than 10 to 1.

What could get Whitman over the goal line in a close game, however, are some of her quieter moves.

She has set up nearly 90 campaign offices, not only in GOP strongholds such as Shasta County but also in such Democratic bastions as liberal Oakland and Latino East Los Angeles. Her multilingual phone banks have reached households that speak Russian, Farsi and Korean; her ads in Spanish blanket billboards and bus stops; she is running TV spots in Mandarin and Cantonese.

Using state-of-the-art microtargeting software, her campaign trawls mountains of publicly and commercially available data, searching for prospective supporters by their voting histories, their incomes and ethnicity, the cars they drive, the magazines they read, the catalogues they shop from, even the groceries they buy.

When Californians open their mailboxes to find another piece of Whitman literature, it is likely to be one that zeroes in on a specific issue they care about. A college-educated independent in his 20s might receive a brochure designed to look like an iPad that features information about Whitman's record as a Silicon Valley superstar; a construction worker in his 30s who votes sporadically may get one that focuses on her promise to create more highway construction jobs.

Whitman's team says she is doing what it takes for a Republican and first-time candidate to win in a state where Democrats have a 13-point edge in voter registration, especially against a former governor who won his first statewide office almost 40 years ago and whose father was also governor.

"The Brown family name is the most powerful name in California," said Mike Murphy, Whitman's chief strategist. "It's like running against a Kennedy in Massachusetts."

Will it all pay off, or will Whitman become an even more spectacular failure than such businessmen-turned-candidates as airline executive Al Checchi, oilman Michael Huffington and financier Bill Simon, all of whom spent big and fell short in California?

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company