California Republicans reached for history in Tuesday’s primary elections, as Meg Whitman claimed the party’s nomination for governor and Carly Fiorina won the GOP race for the U.S. Senate, results that gave women the Republican nominations for the two most powerful statewide political offices for the first time.
The two wealthy businesswomen, who powered their first electoral bids with millions of dollars of their own money, swept into election day as the front-runners and rode the momentum of an angry electorate that spurned the appeals of veteran politicians competing against them on the ballot.
Neither one touted her gender overtly on the campaign trail, but Whitman embraced it Tuesday night as she greeted supporters near Universal Studios.
“Career politicians in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., be warned — you now face your worst nightmare; two businesswomen from the real world who know how to create jobs, balance budgets and get things done!” she said, after congratulating Fiorina.
Democrats on Tuesday confirmed the obvious, selecting Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown as their nominee to the governor’s office he first held in 1975, and Barbara Boxer to seek her fourth term in the U.S. Senate. Both had only nominal competition. Californians on Tuesday also decided a host of statewide measures and local matters, as well as selecting nominees for other state offices.
After dramatic primaries, Tuesday’s results broke swiftly: The losers in both races conceded within 75 minutes of the polls’ closing.
Whitman was decisively ahead of state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner from the first returns. Poizner had spent $24 million of his own money on the race, but the former EBay chief buried his donation with at least $71 million of her own, a California record.
The results set a November match-up between Brown, 72, a career politician who has been secretary of state, governor and Oakland mayor before his current post, and Whitman, 53, who volunteered in the 2008 presidential campaign but whose previous political involvement before that was so tentative that she rarely voted.
Whitman wasted no time blasting Brown as a has-been.
“Jerry Brown has spent a lifetime in politics and the results have not been good,” she said. “Failure seems to follow Jerry Brown everywhere.”
Brown returned the favor at his Los Angeles celebration.
“It’s not enough for someone rich and restless to look in the mirror one morning and decide, ‘Hey, it’s time to be governor of California,’ ” he told a crowd of supporters. He compared Whitman to the state’s unpopular Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We tried that,” Brown said. “It didn’t work. Puffery, platitudes and promises won’t balance our budget, won’t fix our schools and won’t create any new jobs.”
In his brief concession speech, Poizner credited himself with steering Whitman in a more conservative direction, but he declined to endorse her outright.
“If Meg Whitman runs on conservative principles, then she deserves our support,” he told several dozen supporters in Irvine. “Our task is to press ahead, fighting for these conservative principles, to ensure that they prevail in the fall.”
In the Senate race, Fiorina dropped more than $5 million of her own money into ads that took on her chief opponent, former Congressman Tom Campbell. The third-place finisher, Irvine Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, tried to rally support among the primary’s most vocal voters, the “tea party” denizens, but his effort was undercut when Fiorina won the endorsement of the movement’s icon, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Fiorina’s victory set up a rarity in American politics — a November general election battle between two female nominees of the major parties. It and the Whitman-Brown race instantly became among the most watched races nationally with iconic Democratic veterans as key Republican targets.
Speaking to supporters in Anaheim, Fiorina spent most of her remarks criticizing Boxer. “I believe in lower taxes … so that we the people can best decide to spend and invest our hard-earned dollars,” she said. “She believes the government can best decide how to spend your income.”
Boxer characterized the former Hewlett Packard chief executive as a “heartless” executive who fired tens of thousands of workers and sent American jobs to other countries while grabbing perks for herself.
“The biggest contrast will be jobs, jobs, jobs — and what she did when she had a chance,” Boxer said during a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. “When she had her chance to really help workers, she stepped all over them.”
Among the most heated of the Tuesday races was for attorney general. Former Facebook attorney Chris Kelly dropped $12 million into the Democratic race but was trailing San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris; among Republicans, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley defeated former Chapman College Law School dean John Eastman and state Sen. Tom Harman of Huntington Beach.
In the race for lieutenant governor, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom defeated Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn. Abel Maldonado, the appointed incumbent, won the right to seek a full four-year term after besting conservative state Sen. Sam Aanestad of Grass Valley.
All told, the Republican slate in November was stacking up as the party’s most diverse ever. In addition to the two top-of-the-ticket women, another, state Sen. Mimi Walters, was unopposed for the nomination for treasurer; Maldonado is a Latino; Damon Dunn, an African American making his first bid for office in the secretary of state race, won nomination as secretary of state.
Across the nation, elections Tuesday were measurements of the heft of activists on both ends of the political spectrum, as tea party enthusiasts on the Republican side and frustrated liberals on the Democratic side attempted to force their will on incumbents they deemed less than ideologically pure.
In California’s top races, however, that narrative was skewed by the absence of competitive races among Democrats and the overwhelming influence of money among Republicans.
The governor’s race was, from beginning to end, almost wholly defined by the cash poured in by Whitman and Poizner. Whitman announced her intention to run early in 2009, and in September began airing radio ads. “We need to reinvent California, and that reinvention starts at the top,” her ad said.
By February she was dominating the television airwaves with ubiquitous ads that both introduced her and sought to push Poizner to ground well before the election.
Whitman so thoroughly overwhelmed the insurance commissioner that her lead stretched to 40 points in some March polling. But he fought back with ads financed by his personal donations, inflicting damage on Whitman by criticizing her failure to vote, her associations with the controversial investment bank Goldman Sachs and her more moderate positions on illegal immigration and abortion rights.
By May, Poizner had cut Whitman’s lead to single digits, so she poured more money into television and a series of lacerating mailers to California voters, in which she took sharply conservative positions on illegal immigration and attacked his views on abortion rights and Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 measure that limited property taxes.
Whitman rebounded in the primary contest, regaining much if not all of her previous lead — but it came at the cost of her image among the centrist voters who determine California’s November elections. She was beating Brown in head-to-head comparisons in March; by May she was losing, particularly among the women and independents on which she had planned to base her campaign n November.
The Senate race proved to be less a roller coaster than the governor’s race, and the reason again was money — and lack of it.
At the beginning of the year, the contest featured Fiorina, the 55-year-old who had spent her life in the business world but for a rocky turn in Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, against DeVore, the 48-year-old darling of the Republican right who had spent his adult life in service to GOP party politics.
Then Campbell dropped a gubernatorial effort that was being swamped by Whitman’s and Poizner’s money and leaped into the Senate race. The 57-year-old law professor became the immediate frontrunner, if only because his thin statewide profile beat the near-invisibility of DeVore and Fiorina.
But Fiorina, who previously had indicated that she would not spend significant personal money on her campaign, began doing just that. Her first big advertising buy introduced her as a “battle-tested conservative” — not mentioning that many of her battles involved her tenure at, and eventual firing from, Hewlett Packard. Little more than a week later, voters began receiving mailers touting Palin’s endorsement, which Fiorina’s campaign team said gave the first-time candidate credibility among the conservatives who control the GOP primary vote.
Against her wave of advertising, the two other candidates came up comparatively bare. DeVore’s by-the-bootstraps campaign took him to hundreds of events and sought to attract money from tea party advocates. But because of the difficulty any insurgent group has maneuvering in a state so large, their attention gravitated to Nevada and other smaller states.
Campbell, whose political campaigns have always suffered from a lack of funds, raised some money, but ultimately had far less than Fiorina.
The candidates made their final rounds Tuesday, the frontrunners a bit more buoyant than the trailing candidates but all of them maintaining the public confidence that drives volunteers to work until the polls close to lure the last voters.
“I’m going to win tonight,” Poizner said Tuesday afternoon, after visiting a small and stuffy phone bank in Torrance. “We have a great shot, yes, indeed we do.”
Poizner walked into the phone bank arm-and-arm with his wife of 22 years, Carol, and his daughter, Rebecca, who recently turned 18 and cast her first ballot Tuesday morning in Silicon Valley. She voted for her father.
“It was pretty cool,” she said.