What Loss of Competent, Uber-Rich Meg Whitman Says About American Politics

How not to spend $140 million

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It wasn't supposed to be this way for Meg Whitman. The former eBay CEO was supposed to take advantage of a favorable political climate and her near-boundless personal wealth to cruise to victory in the California governor's race. In the process, she would emerge as the focal point in David Brooks's newfangled GOP "austerity caucus," using her business savvy to rescue California from the brink of insolvency and, presumably, position herself for a White House bid in 2012 or 2016.

Instead, on the morning after the biggest Republican midterm gains since 1938, Meg Whitman is faced with the sobering realization she spent $140 million of her own money to lose by 13 points to Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown. As a percentage of a vote, that's only three points better than non-witch Christine O'Donnell. And while Whitman's cause certainly wasn't helped by an embarrassing Nannygate scandal last month, it doesn't completely explain her poor showing. Is America just not ready for a competent, mainstream Republican woman who is very, very rich? A variety of opinions from around the Web:

  • Wealth Backlash The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot argues Whitman's personal fortune--once seen as a major asset--actually worked against her in the closing days of the campaign. Simply put, she overdid it. "She had so much money to throw around that she seems to have overwhelmed and ultimately irritated Californians with her ubiquitous advertising," observes Talbot. "The more money she spent, the less voters seemed to like her. It didn’t help that she turned out to have hired an undocumented Mexican immigrant as a housekeeper for nine years, claimed not to have known anything about her immigration status, then turned on the woman, saying she should be deported."
  • Meg Who? Whitman hid behind an impressive campaign apparatus, observes Time's Michael Scherer, spending heavily on things that allowed her to remain a cipher. "She largely spent her dough on keeping herself away from the voters," writes Scherer. "On consultants, on television spots, on a press team that largely acted like an offensive line." It was a methodical, competent, and efficient operation that completely misunderstood how elections are won. "Voters want to know the person. Candidates are not products. They can't be explained with spreadsheets."
  • Personality Matters Slate's Hanna Rosin says Whitman's defeat proves personality is still an essential part of politics, if only to ward off the effects of bad press. She presented herself as a master technocrat and "failed to come up with a convincing story or connect with the voters." By not displaying a side of her character that voters could relate to--or even recognize-- Whitman's "personality void got filled with mini scandals about her maid and her frat boy son."
  • The Authenticity Test The San Francisco Chronicle's Carla Marinucci and Joe Garofoli note that even in "wave" elections, voters aren't going to cast a ballot for a candidate they don't like. And California voters just didn't like Meg Whitman, whose "seemingly bottomless pocketbook couldn't buy likeability or authenticity, even in a year when longtime politicians such as her opponent, Jerry Brown, were in the bull's eye." Her appearances on the stump were weak, prompting state Republicans to question whether Whitman grasped "the basics of political salesmanship in her quest for the job." And while it's possible she could have grown into the role, she never got the chance, thanks to an "army of consultants [that] insulated her from voters and media for months...a strategy that left her vulnerable during political crises - including her hiring and firing of an undocumented immigrant maid."
  • Underwhelming Campaign All the money in the world couldn't make up for the fact that Whitman was a deeply flawed candidate, writes CNN's Ruben Navarrette. "The California governor's race was always Whitman's to lose," contends Navarrette. "And, sure enough, she lost it -- in spectacular fashion. When the Brown campaign began "pushing the message that she was this rich empress who lived in a bubble and couldn't relate to average Californians," Whitman failed to push back. Despite her impressive resume, Whitman's inability to define herself to voters raised fundamental doubts as to whether she was "up to the job of being governor of the nation's most populous state."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.