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

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?

In many ways, Whitman would seem the ideal fit for this year's anti-incumbent environment, except that California tried electing an independent-minded Republican outsider the last time it chose a new governor - and Arnold Schwarzenegger's approval rating is in the low 20s.

Whitman promises to bring sound business principles to government, and she hammers Brown as a relic of its failure. She wants to eliminate a capital gains tax that she says drives investors from the state, cut 33,000 state workers and put new ones into 401(k)s rather than pensions.

it can be difficult to envision how she could get all that done in a capital as partisan and sclerotic as Sacramento. This year, the legislature was 100 days late in passing a budget full of gimmicks.

Although Whitman's message has been disciplined - focusing on jobs, elementary and high school education, and cutting government spending - it has not been as compelling as Republicans had hoped it would be. She and Brown have traded leads in polls, and the latest surveys show that he is pulling ahead slightly.

But the race remains fluid, and each campaign has gotten caught up in a distractoversy: Whitman's over hiring and then firing an illegal immigrant as a housekeeper, and Brown's over a recording of someone in his campaign referring to Whitman as a "whore."

Brown is receiving help from his union allies, who have spent nearly $14 million on his behalf. The Service Employees International Union recently announced a $5 million ad campaign targeting Latinos. But some Democrats are nervous that they are seeing nothing on their side that matches Whitman's operation.

Brown has conserved his own cash for a big advertising push at the end of the campaign. "He will be arguably competitive on the air for the last four weeks, but I do not believe there is anything approaching a get-out-the-vote operation on the ground that is going to be up to the task," said longtime Democratic operative Garry South, who was the top strategist for former governor Gray Davis.

From outside appearances, South said, Whitman has built "the most extensive absentee-ballot program and get-out-the-vote program that California has ever seen in any race whatsoever."

even some Republicans worry that the shock and awe of Whitman's television ad campaign has simply become too much for California voters.

"She may have been a little overexposed in the summer," said Kenneth Khachigian, a longtime Republican strategist who is advising Carly Fiorina, another former Silicon Valley executive, in her bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. "She used the same template over and over again, and I think people started to tune out."

"I knew it would be like this, but it is all-consuming. It is more consuming than eBay, which is sort of hard to imagine, actually. It is 24-by-7, and it takes everything you have to do this well."

That was a year ago, and Meg Whitman 2.0 was addressing female executives near San Diego at Fortune magazine's annual Most Powerful Women Summit.

She had arrived at eBay in 1998 after a series of big jobs at more traditional corporations, where she managed brands that ranged from Stride Rite shoes to FTD flowers to Mr. Potato Head. When she got a feeler from the two-year-old online auction business, she hadn't expected to be interested. But when she saw its numbers - 30 percent growth per month, and gross margins of 85 percent - she realized the potential.

Over the 10 years she guided eBay, it became an $8 billion behemoth with 15,000 employees and 300 million registered users. The feat landed her eighth on Harvard Business Review's list of best-performing CEOs of the decade.

"She imposed a lot of order and structure, and made it a grown-up organization in a way it hadn't been before," said Adam Cohen, author of "The Perfect Store," a history of eBay. "Her business style was one of real attention to detail, and real concern for infrastructure."

Whitman acknowledged that what she is attempting now is quite a different kind of start-up.

"In business, there are very measurable results all the time, and people can be held accountable for those results," she told the female executives. "In campaigns, and actually in governing, the results are not as clear. There is not nearly as much accountability. And in the case of a campaign, the only result that anyone really focuses on is the end result: Did you win or lose?"

To win, Whitman calculated that she had to have 90 percent of Republican voters - "so you have to get the base of the party excited" - and 60 percent of independents. Her best shot at doing that was to make inroads with three groups that hadn't been voting Republican lately: women, Latinos and 18-to-29-year-olds.

Whitman, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has warmed up considerably as a candidate since the earliest days of her campaign. Yet Republicans say she has not connected on a gut level in a state where the unemployment rate is more than 15 percent in much of the Central Valley and where one-third of those who hold mortgages are trapped in houses that are worth less than what is owed on them.

Said one GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: "You could hold a gun to my head, and I couldn't tell you why she's running for governor. All people know is that this is a very rich person."

One of the proudest achievements of the Whitman campaign sits in a strip mall near the end of an offramp in East Los Angeles. Placards in the windows promise: Mejor trabajos, Crear empleos, Mejorar nuestra escuelas.

It is a bright new campaign office, one that Whitman's team says is the first that any Republican statewide candidate has opened in the neighborhood for at least 30 years. It is also a statement of how serious Whitman is about her stated goal of picking up 40 percent of the Latino vote, which is about double the percentage that Republican candidates have recently won in California.

The office has been vandalized several times. Every few days bring a new group of demonstrators out front: domestic workers who want to highlight the controversy over Whitman's former housekeeper, veterans who say they are offended by her spotty voting record, young Latinos dressed in caps and gowns protesting her opposition to legislation that would legalize undocumented immigrants who receive an education or join the military.

But there are also some promising developments. Last Tuesday night, about 30 people, almost all Latino or Asian, gathered around a television in the East Los Angeles office to watch their candidate in her final debate against Brown.

Among them: Christina Garcia, 43, a Realtor, and her father, Carlos Garcia, 65, a Realtor's assistant, who said they are among the rare Republicans in their neighborhood, El Sereno. The elder Garcia added that he worked on Brown's first campaign for governor. "But I know better now," he said. "Entrepreneurship is the only way we are going to make something happen here in L.A."

People like the Garcias represent the return on Whitman's vast investment. On Nov. 2, she may become the return on theirs.

Special correspondent Michelle E. Thomas contributed to this report.

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