While Meg Whitman was spending nearly $100 million to win the Republican gubernatorial primary, Jerry Brown, the Democratic candidate, was sitting on his own war chest of more than $20 million.
Now he’ll need every penny.
Whitman handily defeated state insurance commissioner Steve Poizner in the GOP race. Her long-anticipated victory sets up a November showdown between the billionaire former eBay CEO and the iconoclastic Brown, a former two-term governor, Oakland mayor and, most recently, attorney general.
According to political consultants not affiliated with either campaign, the general election will be defined by the same lavish spending, with Whitman pouring money into the same relentless attack ads that overwhelmed Poizner.
Brown will be vulnerable against an opponent who has said she will spend $150 million to reach the governor’s office, according to Democratic strategists. He will need to mobilize a base of Latinos, African Americans and union leaders who may not remember his stint as governor over two decades ago.
“The big thing Jerry has to do is figure out how he’s going to engage Meg in some kind of debate that extends beyond the ads,” said Bill Carrick, a Democratic political strategist. “That’s tricky to do in California.”
Whitman, who veered to the right to win the GOP nomination against the conservative Poizner, will have to move to the center to win the general election in a Democratic state, political observers said. But, unlike Brown, she has the money to redefine herself, according to Jim Brulte, the former Senate Republican leader who served as chairman of the Poizner campaign.
“The primary may have pulled her farther to the right,” Brulte said. “By the end of five months, voters will have forgotten that.”
The first ads could come as soon as Wednesday, consultants predicted.
“[Whitman] could go up with a full-bore statewide media campaign tomorrow,” said Garry South, a Democratic political consultant. “And that’s what I suspect she will do.”
Brown and Whitman gave preview to the battle ahead in speeches Tuesday night. Brown called the GOP primary, in which more than $100 million was spent, a "billionaires' demolition derby."
"They set a national record for waste and excess of spending," Brown said.
Just minutes later, Whitman had strong words for Brown in her speech.
"Failure seems to follow Jerry Brown wherever he goes," she said, criticizing Brown's record on jobs, spending, and education.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina won the GOP Senate nomination, and will go up against three-term incumbent Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in the general election. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom won the lieutenant governor Democratic nomination. San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris beat out former Facebook executive Chris Kelly in a closely contested Democratic attorney general primary.
Former Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican rancher from Tracy once called an "eco-thug" by the Sierra Club, who pushed for off-shore drilling and campaigned against the Endangered Species Act while in office, was trailing Jim Patterson and Jeff Denham in the polls.
Voters also narrowly voted down Proposition 16, a measure that would require two-thirds voter support for the creation of a public electricity company option. City of Santa Clara voters approved Measure J, a ballot measure to fund the construction of a new San Francisco 49ers stadium.
Both Whitman and Brown will face questions about their pasts in the general election.
Brown has name recognition—one of the keys to success in a statewide election. But strategists questioned how useful that will be against Whitman’s millions.
“We don’t know which Jerry Brown will show up to the party,” Brulte said. “Popular wisdom says she’s going to start out defining Jerry Brown.”
Whitman, a political newcomer, will likely attempt to brand Brown as a career politician entrenched in the state capital who doesn’t have the vision to lead California out of its current malaise.
“So far, she’s said he’s just a Sacramento politician,” Carrick said. “He can make a good strong case he’s got the skill set. He’s going to have to make the campaign about the future.”
Whitman, in turn, will have to live down her ties to investment firm Goldman Sachs. During the primary, she faced scrutiny over reports that she benefited from insider stock transactions that were later made illegal. Poizner was able to cut into Whitman’s commanding lead by exploiting that issue.
“Brown will try to frame Whitman as someone lacking experience, lacking connection to people,” said Jack Citrin, professor of political science and director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley. “He’ll wade through the Goldman Sachs connection frequently.”
Local voters at the polls today expressed frustration over Whitman's negative campaigning, and Brown's uncertain political legacy in the Bay Area.
"I'm tired of politicians," said Ed Viera, who voted for Whitman at the Evangelical Covenant Church in Antioch. "She ran big companies and stuff, so I figure, I gotta give her a try." Viera said he appreciated Whitman's newness to politics.
In Berkeley, Monte Harrison seemed resigned in his vote, which went to Brown.
"If I'm going to to vote, I may as well vote for somebody," Harrison said. "I'm not really going to take the time to investigate the other candidates."
If Whitman wins, she would be the first female chief executive in state history.
“She’s still struggling to articulate anything that’s very persuasive about herself,” Carrick said. “He just has to do the very difficult task of making the campaign about something other than her buying the election with her personal wealth.”
Both candidates apparently have their work cut out for them—and a long way to go until November.
“This will be a historical election,” Brulte said. “I think this will be a slugfest that will go down to the wire.”