Brown’s low-key campaign confounds pundits who urged him to spend more

Democrat Jerry Brown is running for governor, but voters in California might not know it. Since winning the primary in June, he has spent almost nothing, has rarely appeared on the campaign trail and has yet to air a single ad against Republican rival Meg Whitman.

But as Labor Day, the traditional start of the general election season, approaches, polls show that Brown and Whitman are locked in a tight race, despite Whitman’s putting $104 million of her personal wealth into her campaign and spending $20 million on television ads over the summer.

“It’s a very important point that after Brown not running any campaign, the race is still tied,” said GOP strategist Adam Mendelsohn. “People are now realizing that Jerry Brown is a tougher candidate than they anticipated and the fall is going to be a very difficult election. I think some Republicans thought because she had so much money and was running a very competent campaign, they could get themselves 10 or 15 points up” before he began campaigning.

Brown’s low-key summer strategy was born of necessity, because the candidate’s campaign coffers are a sliver of his billionaire opponent’s, but it is also one that many political experts questioned and that some fellow Democrats criticized as the summer wore on. Whitman’s blanketing of the airwaves and juggernaut campaign machine, they said, would put Brown so far behind by Labor Day that he would never catch up. That scenario failed to materialize.

Whitman brushed aside suggestions that her spending has failed to provide the edge over Brown that a similar early barrage accomplished against her primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. She said she is pleased with her standing, given the Democratic Party’s double-digit voter registration advantage in the state.

“I am absolutely thrilled to death that we are where we are, and I feel very good, I feel the momentum is on our side,” she told reporters in San Diego this month.

Brown mocked the amount the GOP candidate has spent in relation to her position in the polls.

“There are two things that are unprecedented in American political history,” he said last week while campaigning in San Diego. “One, the $100 million plus that Whitman has paid on her campaign, most of it from her own pocketbook, and two, the virtually no effect it’s had.”

The close race appears to rest on a combination of factors, including spending by organized labor on Brown’s behalf, his visibility as attorney general and summer lassitude on the part of voters. General election voters tend to be less committed partisans than primary voters and are not as engaged now as they will be in a few weeks, said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political scientist.

“This group of people will come to the party late,” he said.

The aggressively negative ad campaign launched on Brown’s behalf by organized labor was meant to keep Brown in the mix as he raised money for a fall battle. To date, union coalitions have spent at least $14 million on anti-Whitman efforts.

The largest, California Working Families, spent $9 million, including $7 million on television ads. Spokesman Roger Salazar said labor wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2006 gubernatorial election, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic nominee Phil Angelides began the summer tied but ended it with the Republican up by 14 points.

“Our goal was to make sure that Whitman doesn’t run away with this thing over the summer months,” Salazar said. Working with several other pro-Brown independent expenditure groups, “we did just that. We made sure that come Labor Day, the playing field is even.”

Notable stories — the arrest of a suspect in the Grim Sleeper serial killings in Los Angeles and the pension and pay scandal in Bell — allowed Brown to stay in the spotlight in his day job as attorney general.

Darry Sragow, a Democratic consultant, said Brown managed to avoid looking like he was grandstanding precisely because he has not been in full campaign mode.

“If he had become a candidate too early, in the eyes of voters, everything he did legitimately and appropriately as attorney general … would be suspect,” Sragow said.

Whitman’s campaign charged that Brown was using his elected office to further his political ambitions, but that has not gained much traction. The campaign also accused Brown of hypocrisy for interceding in the Bell case, arguing that mismanagement occurred during his tenure as mayor of Oakland.

Mike Murphy, Whitman’s chief strategist, said last week that the campaign plans to press the issue in the Bay Area, Brown’s home base and a traditional Democratic stronghold. The move is atypical for Republican candidates but demonstrates how Whitman can stretch political norms because of her checkbook.

Like Whitman herself, Murphy rebuffed suggestions that the campaign had failed to capitalize on its summer spending advantage. Most polls since the primary show a dead-even race, but Murphy seized on a single poll last week that showed Whitman with a lead of eight points, on the edge of the poll’s margin of error.

“I’m not telling you it’s an eight-point race, but I’m also telling you I believe we’re ahead,” he said.

Gerston said that regardless of any gyrations in the polls, what many observers, including himself, predicted — that Whitman would pummel Brown if the Democrat failed to act during the summer — has not come to pass.

“The question is will [he] get close enough to equaling the onslaught we all expect from Whitman in the coming months, and whether the $25 [million] or $30 million he’s squirreled away will get him there. I don’t know if it will,” Gerston said. But “he’s made it a lot more interesting than many people had anticipated.”

Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said some campaign staffers questioned the wisdom of holding off until the fall.

Brown “said in the spring that voters would pay more attention in the fall and wouldn’t be paying attention in the summer. I think the fact that there’s virtually no movement in polls shows he was right,” Clifford said.