Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman barely paused to take a breath after her landslide primary victory, saturating the airwaves with ads, raising money across the state, trying to woo traditionally Democratic voters and using her massive campaign machine to drive the conversation in her race against rival Jerry Brown.
Brown, meanwhile, is off the air, has yet to reach out to key voter blocs in any strategic way and has gotten more attention for gaffes than for policy proposals.
Part of the contrast is the result of the yawning funding gap between Whitman, a billionaire who has put $91 million of her own money into her effort, and Brown, who has had to scramble for donations in a stressed economy.
It’s also the byproduct of Brown’s campaign, which boasts a shoestring staff and a candidate who is proud of his frugality and last campaigned in a major election nearly two decades ago.
The combination of Whitman’s wealth and a distinct lack of energy by Brown is making California Democrats nervous about their candidate’s prospects in the fall.
“If you’re going to run for governor, you have to do what it takes. You can’t tell yourself or tell everyone else there is some special way for you to do this that is completely outside the norms that apply to everyone else,” said Democratic strategist Garry South, who advised San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom in his combative primary bid against Brown.
South is particularly concerned that Brown, who raised $23 million before the primary, began fundraising too late.
Asked what he would advise Brown to do, South replied, “Go back in time and start over. I hate to be flippant, but once you let that time go by, you can’t recoup it.”
Even those who are confident in Brown’s strategy of saving his resources for the fall are daunted by Whitman’s bottomless coffers.
“He’s not going to be competitive at the beginning of the campaign, we just have to live with that,” said Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic consultant. “Does that make people nervous in the Democratic Party and Brown supporters? Of course it does.”
A Brown spokesman said such anxiety is misplaced.
“We are confident that the Brown campaign is doing the things that need to be done and we’re in the position we want to be in,” said spokesman Sterling Clifford. “I think that kind of worry is in the DNA of the Democratic Party.”
The two candidates have had roughly the same number of events since the June 8 primary. Whitman’s events are staged by her campaign, which allows her a controlled environment in which to push a predetermined campaign theme. Brown has largely spoken at conferences and meetings sponsored by other groups, a cheaper alternative but one that does not always lend itself to full-throated campaign speeches. Brown also has held nearly twice as many fundraisers, a necessary choice given Whitman’s funding advantage.
Their funding gap is obvious to anyone who owns a television: Whitman is saturating the airwaves with ads touting her economic focus and attacking Brown, and trying to woo Latino voters on Spanish-language television and radio. Although independent analysts have found that many of her allegations against Brown are inaccurate, the former governor has no plans to counter her by advertising soon.
“She’s advertising every day and I gotta wait because I don’t have the same kind of money. I’m not a billionaire,” he said on KTTV in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
But he noted that he had a 6-point lead in a recent poll, a gap he called “amazing” given the funding disparity.
Unions are airing a smattering of anti-Whitman television and radio ads, but it remains to be seen how much they will spend on Brown, especially if they decide to weigh in on November ballot measures that could affect state spending.
Political observers say Brown’s strategy is risky, and familiar. In the Republican primary, Whitman began advertising months before her opponent, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, essentially defining him to voters. He insisted that he’d successfully make his pitch closer to the election. But he never caught up, losing by nearly 38 points.
“Brown can’t make the same mistake that Steve Poizner made,” said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.
Brown supporters note that Poizner was a little-known politician, whereas Brown is widely known from his decades in politics, including his two terms as governor.
“Poizner started with practically nonexistent name recognition,” Clifford said. “That’s obviously not a concern with Jerry Brown.”
Brown is well-known to older voters. But that is not the case with younger Californians.
According to a Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll in May, 56% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 had not heard enough about Brown to have an impression of him. Nearly one-third of voters between 30 and 44 felt the same way.
Brown’s fall strategy runs contrary to his own experience. While seeking re-election in 1978, Brown got a post-primary head start on his GOP opponent, Evelle Younger, by blanketing the state with a radio ad depicting himself as a governor who worked hard while Younger vacationed in Hawaii. Younger never recovered.
Both finances and Brown’s proclivities account for a striking difference in the campaigns: their staff rosters. Brown has eight campaign workers, five fundraisers and some full-time volunteers. Whitman has 66 staffers and an army of consultants.
Brown boasts of his frugality, but the staffing disparity has led to stumbles by his campaign.
One example: After Whitman released an anti-Brown ad last week, his campaign spent more than eight hours crafting a point-by-point defense — an eternity in the modern media environment. It consisted of responses to attacks that could have been foreseen long ago.
Whitman’s far larger staff has aggressively reached out to voters in ways Brown’s has not. Surrogates for the Republican candidate appear on radio shows and write for websites; the campaign has worked to attract Latino voters, nurses and women; Whitman’s website is available in Spanish and Mandarin, and prominently displays links to policy proposals about the economy, education, spending and other issues. Brown’s bare-bones website offers only one, a clean-energy plan wedged in amid news releases, and is presented only in English.
“I would like to see him be more aggressive, more active and quicker. It’s a different race than running for [attorney general] four years ago or for governor however many years ago it was,” said a Democratic operative who would not be named criticizing the candidate because of his involvement in the November election.
Several strategists suggested that Brown should increase the number and visibility of his appearances on television, radio and newspapers.
Brown has done nearly twice as many media interviews as Whitman, but his campaign is less deliberate in spreading news of them around.
“TV ads are one surefire way to talk to voters, but not the only way,” said Dan Newman, a spokesman for Level the Playing Field 2010, a coalition of unions that are opposing Whitman. “They need to have a voice in the news every day so they are … making news and driving the debate.”
Despite their anxiety, several strategists with differing views on the Brown campaign’s performance agreed on one thing — that their candidate is smart, shrewd and not to be taken lightly.
“Anyone who underestimates Jerry Brown is doing so at their own peril,” said Darry Sragow.