Whitman vs. Brown: Slogans and Money in California

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Before Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman were even nominated as candidates in the California governor's race, Republican and Democratic groups began gearing up attacks on each of them. The Republican Governors Association created a site cleverly named "whatsbrowndone" and California Democrats labeled billionaire former eBay CEO Whitman, who has poured over $100 million of her own money into the race, as someone who was essentially trying to "Buy It Now," a phrase popularized by the company Whitman led as it morphed into a global juggernaut and one of the most successful stories of the dot com era. These themes turned out to be prescient.
Race of the Day
Though she has a war chest that will never be empty, Whitman faces many obstacles. First, California has rejected candidates who have spent ostentatiously, such as Michael Huffington.

Second, California's Democrats, largely due to the anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric espoused by former Governor Pete Wilson, outnumber Republicans significantly in the state. Wilson chaired Whitman's campaign during the primaries but Whitman is keeping her distance from him in the general election because he is probably viewed less favorably among Latinos than George W. Bush is among African Americans; Whitman may be hurt in the polls if Hispanics become galvanized by policies they deem to be targeting and discriminatory towards them (more on this later).

Third, Whitman is a first-time candidate, and though that is also an advantage in a year when voters are fed up with politicians, she--and her communications staff--have not run the smoothest of campaigns. Whitman has made some rookie gaffes that may require her to write more checks to her campaign. She got caught on tape in a weird presser in Northern California where she refused to answer media questions. She did not go to the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board meeting, becoming the first statewide candidate in recent history to not attend the annual tradition. She bizarrely criticized the candidate she defeated, the more conservative Steve Poizner, after the primary was over. And footage was leaked showing a town hall she held in Orange County that seemed to be staged for a campaign commercial.

Her campaign's implicit theme, though more vague slogans than detailed policies, is that she can turn around California just as she successfully managed eBay. Yet she has come across, at times, as a cold and aloof CEO who doesn't seem to stand for much but herself.

And then there is Jerry Brown, California's youngest governor, who is also trying to become its oldest--quirky, unpredictable, and wacky as always. But in this anti-incumbent year, those zany qualities may actually help Brown shed his establishment image with voters.

The proper question to ask Brown, of course, would indeed be "what's Brown done." As in, what's Brown done in this campaign to show voters he actually has a pulse. Perhaps the former governor has been saving his money, knowing he would have to maximize the bang for his buck against Whitman. Perhaps he is assuming that there are enough registered Democrats to put him over the top against any Republican. Or perhaps he's being as aloof as he has been stereotyped.

Yet in this election cycle, he has gotten more headlines for taking a shot at his nemesis Bill Clinton (who, in turn, has endorsed Brown) than he has for defining himself, this race, or Whitman. Political insiders have wondered if Brown believes California's heavily Democratic demographics are enough for him to coast to victory. If voters think Brown is taking this election for granted, it could cost him.

And of course, one cannot write about California politics without talking about sensationalism, tabloids, and the Hispanic vote, which all came to a head the day after the first gubernatorial debate, in which Whitman was poised though a bit cold while Brown was eccentric yet charming. The next day, infamous lawyer Gloria Allred held a press conference with Whitman's former housekeeper, Nicky Diaz, claiming that Whitman and her husband knew that Diaz was an undocumented immigrant while they employed her. Diaz claimed that though the Whitmans received a "no-match" Social Security letter, they knowingly employed her until it became politically inconvenient to do so. Whitman's camp is claiming that Brown is working in cahoots with Allred and exploiting and taking advantage of Diaz, something the Brown campaign categorically denies.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see how Whitman's advisors, who have not been the nimblest this election cycle, get her out of this mess without turning off Hispanic voters and without  this reinforcing her image as a wealthy, out-of-touch politician whose values are not in line with those of struggling Californians.

Brown, meanwhile, was engaged in a mini-controversy of his own as one of his advisors (some insiders claim perhaps it was his wife) was overheard in a phone conversation uttering the word "whore" in reference to Whitman being potentially bought off by law enforcement organizations. The conversation leaked and the Whitman campaign tried to juice every ounce of capital from it. And even with Brown's rather tepid apology for being associated with the remark, this flap is potentially less damaging than Whitman's multiple problems with her past employees.
    
With all of California's fiscal troubles, some may wonder why anyone would even want this job. For Brown, it may be a feather in the cap of a storied political career. He may think he can govern this time around with no one but the people of California to answer to. As he alluded to in the first debate, he's too old to run for anything else.

For Whitman, the stakes are higher. If elected, she automatically vaults into the GOP and national stratosphere. If she succeeds in turning California around, she could be on a national ticket. 

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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