Despite Arnold Schwarzenegger's bad approval ratings, a political newcomer leading the Republican field, and a Democrat who has held multiple high-level state offices running against her, there's a good chance California's next governor will be a Republican.
Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, the aforementioned Republican newcomer, holds a slight edge over Democrat Jerry Brown in a new LA Times/USC poll, with 44% to Brown's 41%.
This is a bit surprising given that Schwarzenegger, the state's current Republican governor, logged a Bush-esque 25% approval rating; Brown, who now serves as California's attorney general, has been a fixture of California politics for decades, first as the state's post-Watergate governor in the 1970s, then as Democratic party chairman, then as a presidential candidate in 1992, then as mayor of Oakland, and now as AG since 2006; and Whitman herself has never run for office before.
How has she done this? By spending tons of her own money, and by being a generally inoffensive candidate with business experience when the state's budget outlook is terrible.
As for the money: Whitman is a billionaire, and apparently she's not ashamed of this. Whitman donated $39 million to her own campaign, which had spent a massive $26.8 million between Jan. 1 and March 17, largely on TV ads pumping up Whitman and attacking her nearest GOP challenger, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. The anti-Poizner ads smugly question his fiscal-conservative credibility--a line of attack that would resonate with Republican primary voters, but wouldn't turn off moderate independents.
As a result, people know who she is. From the LA Times:
Two-thirds of California voters said they had seen a political ad this year, and the overwhelming majority had seen one by Whitman, who has divided her advertising stream between generalized feel-good commercials for herself and mocking slams at Poizner...
...53% of those who have seen her ads backed Whitman over Brown in a general election matchup; 33% backed her among those who said they had not seen political ads.
Whitman is not a conservative firebrand, even though she has strived for the fiscal-conservative vote in her June primary against Poizner. She's a former CEO, and that seems to be playing well in a state with a crippled budget. Brown, by contrast, is a liberal Democrat; candidates of that profile can struggle when fiscal conservatism is in the air among independents.
From the start, it seemed as if Whitman's venture into electoral politics, by virtue of being her first, would require lots of startup capital. So far, she's put the capital into it, and it appears to be working out all right.