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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Could Meg Whitman Lose Her Primary?

This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on May 11, 2010.
After spending upwards of $60 million, much of it lately on attack ads against her Republican primary rival, Steve Poizner, California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman appears to have lost most of a large lead over Poizner and is heading towards the June 8 balloting in an astonishingly vulnerable position.
A new Survey USA poll out yesterday shows eMeg leading Poizner 39%/37%, a twenty-point net swing in Poizner’s favor since the previous SUSA survey in April. Even if you are skeptical about the accuracy of SUSA’s robo-polls, California political cognoscenti all seem to agree that Poizner is closing fast.
This is significant beyond the borders of California for at least four reasons. The first and most obvious is that Whitman’s epic spending on early television ads doesn’t seem to be doing her a lot of good. If she winds up becoming the new Al Checchi–the 1998 Democratic gubernatorial candidate who broke all previous spending records on heavily negative ads and then got drubbed in his primary–it will be an object-lesson to self-funders everywhere.
The second reason a Whitman defeat or near-defeat would resonate broadly is that it would confirm the rightward mood of Republicans even in a state where they are reputedly more moderate. At this point, both Poizner and Whitman are constantly calling each other “liberals,” with Poizner, who’s running ads featuring conservative GOP avatar Tom McClintock, getting the better of that particular argument. Whitman would have undoubtedly preferred to have kept closer to the political center in preparation for a tough general election campaign against Jerry Brown. But Poizner is forcing her to compete for the True Conservative mantle in a very conspicuous way.
Thirdly, there are signs that Poizner is also forcing Whitman–and by implication, the entire California Republican Party–to risk a repetition of the 1990s-era GOP alienation of Latino voters by endorsing harsh immigration measures. This has been a signature issue for Poizner from the beginning; he supports bringing back Proposition 187–the 1994 ballot measure pushed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson that is widely interpreted as having destroyed California’s Republican majority by making the state’s huge Latino population a reliable and overwhelming Democratic constituency. Poizner has also lavishly praised the new Arizona immigration law. Having tried to ignore the issue initially, Whitman is now running radio ads in which Pete Wilson (her campaign chairman) touts her determination to fight illegal immigration. If those ads migrate to broadcast TV, it’s a sure bet that Whitman is panicking, and that monolithic Latino support for Brown in the general election is a real possibility. And if that can happen in California, where immigrant-bashing is so obviously perilous, it can certainly happen in other parts of the country.
Finally, it’s worth noting that aside from immigration, the issue on which Poizner seems to be gaining traction is the attention he’s devoted to Whitman’s involvement with Goldman Sachs. She was on the firm’s board for a number of years, and earned a very large amount of money from an insider practice–then legal, now illegal–called “spinning,” which she nows says she “regrets.” Poizner’s having a lot of fun with this issue, and the California Democratic Party is chipping in with an ad ostensibly promoting financial reform in Washington that is mainly aimed at Whitman. Lesson to would-be-business-executive-candidates: some kinds of private-sector experience are not helpful to your candidacy in the current climate.
It’s worth noting that there’s another major statewide GOP primary going on in California, involving another female former-business-executive who gained national attention through involvement in the McCain presidential campaign. That would be Carly Fiorina, who is running for the Senate nomination to oppose Barbara Boxer, but is struggling to catch up with an opponent, Tom Campbell, who really does have a moderate repuation, at least on abortion and same-sex marriage. And one of Fiorina’s main problems is a third candidate, Chuck DeVore, who’s running hard as the True Conservative in the race. Fiorina has recently wheeled out endorsements from Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum. All three major GOP Senate candidates have endorsed the Arizona immigration law. The outcome of this race, and where the competition positions the winner, could also have a fateful impact on the general election and on the future of California politics.

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