Politics & Policy

Meg at Bay

In California's GOP gubernatorial primary, money don't buy you love.

For Meg Whitman, it never should have been this tough — or, for that matter, this expensive. Whitman, a former eBay chief executive, has burned through $68 million from her personal fortune in the run-up to California’s GOP gubernatorial primary on June 8. All that cash, she thought, would build up a comfy lead. For a while, it did. A March poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California pegged her as a near-sure thing — up 50 points, with her 30-second meet-Meg spots as ubiquitous on California televisions as Law & Order. Now, thanks to her wobbly stance on illegal immigration and growing conservative skepticism, her campaign has become the Spruce Goose of California politics — too big to fly.

Whitman has tumbled in the PPIC’s latest poll; she now holds a meager nine-point lead, with 31 percent of voters undecided. (SurveyUSA has her up by two, Research 2000/Daily Kos by ten.) Nipping at her heels is Steve Poizner, a bespectacled, silver-haired engineer who was elected state insurance commissioner in 2006. Like Whitman, he’s a 53-year-old tech-boom gazillionaire and holds an MBA (she Harvard, he Stanford). He speaks with the wonky, soft cadence of a high-school teacher, which, he loves telling you, he became, after selling his cell-phone-gadget company for $1 billion at the height of the Silicon Valley bubble.

#ad#Whitman’s slow dip into hot water began in April, when she came out strong against Arizona’s immigration law, saying “if that law were to come before me, I would oppose it.” In an interview with the Associated Press she said there are “just better ways to solve this problem.” Compounding that headache were comments she made in October 2009, recommending a “fair program” for illegal immigrants to “stand in the back of the line” and “pay a fine”– not deportation — as one possible solution. State conservative blogs and activists had a field day.

Soon after, in a town-hall meeting with supporters, Whitman quickly tacked right, telling the assembled that she had “tremendous amount of sympathy for the people of Arizona . . . they rose up.” Her opposition to amnesty, she lamented, “has been so misrepresented,” but still, even she admitted, the episode had been her “welcome to politics” moment. Indeed.

Despite Whitman’s sinking numbers, she remains as upbeat (and pointedly vague) as the sellers on her old website. Such confidence is a staple of Team Meg, who have had to reassure California Republicans for months that they are Terminator 4 — no Ahnuld, but a sure summer blockbuster, so damn the early reviews. After PPIC’s May survey was released, Whitman told local reporters that she, of course, “knew the polls would close” and that she “can feel the momentum beginning to shift back my way.” Her advisers say their internal polls have her up by 20 points. Others aren’t so sure.

“This election is very much in flux,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “Voters are alienated. Republicans are struggling to figure out what to do about it and what their party stands for. The Democrats — with their candidates unchallenged — aren’t going through this soul-searching.”

“Whitman’s 50-point lead was always artificial,” argues Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution who advised Pete Wilson when he was governor of California. “For a long time, Poizner was nowhere to be seen. Since he started to air television ads, the polls began to naturally move toward an equilibrium.” Whitman, he says, has been “running a November campaign, focused on inevitability and electability against Jerry Brown in the general election,” while Poizner, running to her right, has been “all about June.” If she loses, “it’ll be a historic collapse, on par with former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s fall in the 2002 gubernatorial primary to conservative Bill Simon” and Michael Huffington’s failed $28-million bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1994.

#page#Poizner tells National Review Online that his tough position on border security and enforcement is a key explanation for his sudden surge. California is plagued by illegal immigration, and Poizner supports neighboring Arizona’s new immigration law. “Meg Whitman is in complete concert with Mexican president Felipe Calderón and President Obama,” he says. “I was outraged when Calderón went to the floor of Congress and criticized the people of Arizona. Like him, Whitman is opposed to what Arizona’s doing.”

Poizner pledges to crack down on illegal immigration if elected — ending taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants, cutting off state funding for “sanctuary cities” such as San Francisco, suspending business licenses for employers who break immigration laws, and sending in the National Guard if border security does not improve. “The federal government is not addressing this, so it’s now our responsibility to turn off the economic magnets,” he says. “It’s an economic and national-security issue.”

#ad#The PPIC’s March poll hinted at this emerging thorn in Whitman’s side. Sixty-percent of Republicans view immigrants “as a burden,” with 69 percent of respondents, across parties, calling for “major changes” in immigration policy. Poizner, no Scrooge, has ladled himself $24 million of his own cash to hammer Whitman on this issue via statewide television ads. For effect, he’s even traveled to the U.S.–Mexico border in San Ysidro with reporters.

In Poizner’s latest commercial, he highlights Calderón’s words and flashes the Mexican leader’s image alongside Whitman’s. Whitman, on the defensive, has snapped back with her own spot, proclaiming to be “100 percent against amnesty for illegal immigrants. Period.” She has also released a radio ad featuring Wilson, one of her most prominent backers (along with other kings of the GOP establishment such as Dick Cheney, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Newt Gingrich). Wilson calls her “tough as nails” on immigration, even though she opposes Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal-immigration referendum that Wilson backed. (Proposition 187 would have set up a screening system to keep illegal immigrants from using social services, but it was declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Wilson appealed the decision, but his successor, Gray Davis, stopped the process, leaving the law dead.)

Poizner then used Whitman’s Wilson support against her, featuring it in a Spanish-language radio ad — tarring her as soft on immigration with one hand while extending the other to the Latino community. Only in California.

All of this border talk could lead to a Poizner upset. “Immigration has become the issue of the campaign,” says Tony Krvaric, the San Diego County GOP chairman. “Everyone is fired up about it. With California’s terrible, 12.6 percent unemployment rate, everyone I talk to on the grassroots level is concerned about jobs and the border.”

Jon Fleischman, vice chairman of the California GOP, tells the Sacramento Bee that, according to the party’s internal polling, 84 percent of California Republicans support the Arizona immigration law. Still, Dan Schnur, another former Wilson aide and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says that Poizner’s immigration focus may have “turned this race into a real contest, but it still remains an uphill battle for him.”

#page#Schnur says another hot-button issue could damage Whitman’s candidacy, namely her ties to Goldman Sachs. In 2001, Whitman was put on Goldman’s corporate board, earning $475,000 for her part-time gig and gaining access to initial public offerings of top stocks. “While the GOP base in California may be economically conservative, it is culturally conservative and populist as well,” Schnur says. “A lot of the grassroots activists and conservative voters harbor just as much suspicion toward Wall Street as they do toward Sacramento and Washington. What Whitman did may alienate a number of voters.” Poizner has leaped onto this connection since Goldman rocketed into national headlines, running an ad charging that Whitman “helped manage Goldman and received sweetheart stock deals so unethical they were outlawed.”

Still, even as Poizner continues to call himself the race’s “true conservative,” he could be haunted by his moderate history. In 2004, Poizner ran for (and lost) a state assembly seat, and during the campaign he portrayed himself as a center-right Republican. Whitman has seized on his past statements and associations — the “Steve shuffle” — on her campaign site. In one ad, she charges that Poizner “gave $10,000” to Al Gore’s recount efforts in 2000. Poizner’s campaign says that his wife made the donation from a joint checking account. Then again, as PolitiFact observes, “the fact that he signed the check officially makes the donation his, and the listing of his employer, rather than his wife’s, on the disclosure form provides additional evidence that he was the intended donor.”

#ad#Whitman has also criticized Poizner on global warming, noting his previous support for Assembly Bill 32, a state law passed in 2006 to curb emissions. Now he calls the measure a “draconian set of regulations.” He’s a “convenient convert,” says Rob Stutzman, Whitman’s political strategist. Whitman, however, gave $300,000 to the Environmental Defense Fund and took an Arctic cruise with Van Jones, the disgraced former environmental czar for President Obama.

“Look, I’ve been conservative all my life,” Poizner explains. “I worked in the Bush White House as a counterterrorism fellow. My conservative principles have crystallized in recent years, once I got to see Sacramento from the inside as insurance commissioner. The culture of corruption has been an eye opener and I’m now much more passionate about my conservative values — in the free market, personal responsibility, the Tenth Amendment, local control, and small government.”

State senator Tony Strickland (R.), a co-founder of California’s Club for Growth chapter, says he remains worried about Poizner’s true values and will back Whitman. Poizner, he says, has “confused” conservatives with his ads. “I don’t think either is a social conservative, but Meg Whitman is by far the conservative candidate here,” he tells us. “She’s focused on what we’re all concerned about: the economy, downsizing state government, and making this state pro-business and pro-growth.” Whitman, he believes, “will bounce back, once people hear her full take on illegal immigration,” though he understands why Poizner has risen, since “the issue is as hot this year as [Proposition] 187 was.”

Jarrod Agen, Poizner’s political strategist, brushes back against any concerns. “Steve has reached out to the tea-party movement and worked very hard on the grassroots level,” he says. “This is an anti-establishment year and Whitman is the establishment. The Arizona law has become a litmus test.” Besides, he reasons, “we’ve been endorsed by Congressman Tom McClintock, the state’s conservative standard bearer, while Whitman is backed by out-of-state folks.”

#page#Poizner hasn’t stopped his beat-Meg campaign at immigration and, frankly, he’s made some low blows. In a new web ad, he calls her a smut peddler, criticizing her for allowing pornography to be purchased on eBay while as CEO while taking away the ability for eBay users to sell guns. In the campaign’s final days, Poizner will have some help on the trail from Democrats. According to the Orange County Register, the California Democratic party and labor unions are spending nearly $2 million on anti-Whitman ads.

“There is a lot of growing discontent with all of this negativity,” cautions Don Watnick, the Fresno County GOP chairman. “They’re spending so much money to beat each other up. Airing so much laundry only helps Jerry Brown.”

#ad#“With both Poizner and Whitman, their conservative garments still have their tags on them,” said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College, to the Bee. “You’ve got Poizner, who not that long ago called himself a Schwarzenegger Republican and is now trying to morph his opponent into Schwarzenegger. And Meg Whitman is trying to come across as the California version of Margaret Thatcher.”

Schwarzenegger, for his part, is raising his eyebrows at the primary kerfuffle. At a press conference last week, he lamented that the duo is “outdoing each other [to see] who is more to the right.”

To Poizner, that’s just fine. “California is a few years ahead of where Obama wants to take the whole country,” he says. “These left-leaning socialist policies need to be stopped. Schwarzenegger is unpopular for good reason, as is Whitman, who has surrounded herself with his advisers. The people don’t want another governor who lacks core conservative principles. They want sweeping, bold changes in the most liberal, bankrupt state in the country.”

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

Robert Costa — Robert Costa is National Review's Washington editor and a CNBC political analyst. He manages NR's Capitol Hill bureau and covers the White House, Congress, and national campaigns. ...

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