Reilly: Underfunded Brown Bid a Case of Deja Vu


By Clint Reilly
Special to Calbuzz

Today Calbuzz presents an assessment of the campaign for governor by political strategist, businessman and columnist Clint Reilly. Reilly, whose advice Brown recently sought, has a unique perspective, having run the 1994 gubernatorial bid of the Democratic candidate’s sister, Kathleen, against Pete Wilson, who enjoyed a substantial fundraising advantage.

Jerry Brown was the keynote speaker at the recent Gay Pride Breakfast in San Francisco. To loud cheers from the highly partisan audience, Brown talked human rights and revved up the crowd for a tough election in November. I was there with my candidate wife, Janet Reilly, who is running hard for the Board of Supervisors, to fill a seat previously held  by Dianne Feinstein and Gavin Newsom.

To my surprise, after delivering his address, Brown took a seat next to me and proceeded to question me intensely for more than half an hour about my experience running his sister Kathleen Brown’s campaign for Governor in 1994.

The Attorney General had clearly read carefully an April 2010 article I had written in the editions of all 11 Bay Area MediaNews newspapers. I had predicted that Whitman would launch a withering assault right after the primary and present him with a classic Hobson’s Choice:

Should he deplete his limited war chest and respond with tough attacks on Meg Whitman’s record and character in order to prevent her from building an insurmountable lead over the summer? Or should he keep his powder dry until after Labor Day and be competitive on television during the crucial weeks of September and October?

I had faced the same dilemma as Kathleen Brown’s campaign consultant and chairman in 1994.

That year, I was hired after a late primary campaign shakeup to take over Treasurer Brown’s sagging bid for governor against incumbent Pete Wilson. First, we had to defeat John Garamendi‘s persistent primary challenge. Garamendi was easily dispatched, but the skirmish sucked up valuable campaign resources.  Kathleen’s two-year march to the primary had exhausted precious money as well.

I took a poll following her June primary victory; the euphoria was quickly killed when I discovered that Gov. Pete Wilson had built a 10-point lead over Brown.

Public polls at the time still showed Brown with a lead over the governor. But Wilson’s unanswered negative commercials during his uncontested primary had clearly worked. Initially, I was skeptical and did something I had never done in more than two decades in the business — I took another poll.

Unfortunately, the second results were worse.

As we entered July, Wilson had a huge financial advantage. Ultimately, he outspent us by more than 2.5 to 1 during the time I worked for Brown. Because we were decisively behind during the summer, I chose  to spend money during the summer to close the gap. I reasoned that unless we were in the hunt after Labor Day, Wilson’s vastly superior bank account would bury us at the end.

As it turned out, bad polls in September and October choked off our fundraising and we ran out of money.

Of course I was roundly criticized. Press, pundits and competitors fed on my carcass for weeks after Brown lost badly in November. At a well attended UC Berkeley post mortem on the race in January 1995 – ill-timed on my birthday – I remarked that I felt like a cadaver at my own autopsy.

Campaign professionals – like sports coaches – are often confronted with two unpalatable options. In 2006, then-Treasurer Phil Angelides faced the same problem against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Behind in the summer and drained from a costly primary against Steve Westly, Angelides decided not to compete with Arnold’s summer television blitz. By September he was so far behind that he was never able to make a dent in the Governor’s 20-point lead. Angelides lost by the same margin as Kathleen Brown.

This year, Whitman’s summer assault by mid-June had already closed a post primary gap of 5 points enjoyed by Brown. Now, I believe, she has already moved ahead by mid-single digits . Unanswered, she will reach Labor Day with an insurmountable head start.

Back to my discussion with Jerry Brown at the Pride breakfast. Here’s what I told him:  His $30 million war chest isn’t enough to beat a billionaire who will spend more than $100 million.

The real choice is not whether to spend his limited funds now or later, it is to convince his allies in labor to power a substantial independent expenditure campaign during the summer that keeps him in the game; the total Democratic campaign must be roughly equal in dollars to Whitman’s in order for the attorney general to prevail.

But Brown faces two stumbling blocks: First, public employee unions are an easy target in an era when  budget deficits in Sacramento are a major issue in the November election. Second, Whitman’s money might have boomeranged like Al Checchi and other previous, wealthy self-funded candidates. But recently, voters seem to be accepting her huge personal spending as just another form of legitimate funding.

The lesson of Kathleen Brown’s 1994 failed campaign and Phil Angelides’ 2006 debacle is the simple rule followed by generals in battles through the ages: the side with superior resources usually wins.

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There are 10 comments for this post

  1. avatar Bob Mulholland says:

    Superior resources usually wins is not accurate. The cemetery is full of multi millionaires who tried to push their way into office with personal money.

    Whitman will ultimately will fall flat like New Coke did. It didn’t matter what Coke spent in ads or said about the new taste.

    Whitman is a scatterbrain- couldn’t figure out where her polling place was for 20 years, despite having limos and drivers. She really doesn’t like people- notice how little contact she has with ordinary Californians or how uncomfortable she looks when forced to be with people. And would a CEO who pushed someone down, which eBay had to pay $200,000 to settle the physical altercation incident, be hired by a law firm-No.

    Californians elect Governors they knew of before they ran for Governor. Before last year 99.9% of Californians, including the poll workers at Whitman’s polling place, never heard of her.

  2. avatar ReilleyFam says:

    The big difference is that both Wilson and Arnold were INCUMBENTS with a proven track record which at the time of their RE-elections people liked. If anything, Brown is the incumbent now. This is not an accurate comparison.

  3. avatar tegrat says:

    Certainly Michael Huffington springs to mind as a big spender. Whitman is an easy target, they’d best start shooting soon (and I mean that strictly metaphorically for you teabaggers out there).

  4. avatar Bob Mulholland says:

    Actually the Republican Schwarzenegger is the incumbent. And 99% of the voters know that Jerry Brown is the Democrat and Fiorina & Whitman are the Republicans. Ask voters in California who is responsible for the Great Recession- overwhemingly they say Bush Jr.- both supported by Whitman & Fiorina. Additionally, Californians in 2003 took a risk by voting for the outsider, the one claiming he would solve all of California’s problems by lowering taxes, increase funding for education, eliminate waste in government and make us all happy. Arnie now has a 70% unfavorable image- the highest ever for a California Governor. Whitman is running on the Arnie Platform.

  5. avatar Ernie Konnyu says:

    From the right side of the aisle it appears to me that Clint Reilly, as ususal, has the precisely correct analysis and the cure for Old Krusty Brown. Of course, getting labor and all to actually gather and spend fully matching amounts in June, July and August, as we begin to find out, is a wholly different matter.

    In his above two comments Bob Mulholland is wastefully blowing smoke into the prevailing strategy wind and doing what feels good to him, namely the usual beatings on Republican heads.

    Keep it up Bob as long as you can but remember EMeg’s staying power! I suspect we’ll see her Majesty, a la Napoleon at twice his size, placing the crown on her own head in November!

  6. avatar Bob Mulholland says:

    Ernie- didn’t you tell people you would be reelected to Congress in the June 1988 Republican Primary when Tom Campbell ran against you. How did that work out?

  7. avatar Donald from Pasadena says:

    While I think it’s a mistake to get into a slugfest with a candidate who can wield superior resources, at the same time, I can’t help but think that Meg Whitman’s negatives far outweigh her positive attributes. She comes across as an insensitive, imperious and calculating woman who would ruthlessly do whatever it takes to get her way, and to be bluntly frank, she scares the bejeebus out of me. She may be a wealthy candidate, but she’s certainly no Dick Riordan.

  8. avatar micahdw says:

    Until the last sentence, this was a useful article. There is not, however, even from recent California history reason to believe that the candidate with more resources always wins. Systematic studies show that finances matter somewhat but only as one of a number of factors. And Calbuzz’s own poll analysis showed that in the wake of weeks of multi-million dollar spending, candidate Whitman’s negatives had gone up and her lead over Brown had shrunk. Which isn’t to say that the Brown folks shouldn’t be shaking in their boots. Just that there’s no reason to be a fatalist here. Though he has his weaknesses, Brown is a much better suited to stay in the race than were the Dems candidates in ’94 or ’06. And Whitman is no Wilson, to be sure, but arguably she’s no Schwarzenegger either, which is the truly scary thing …

  9. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    Whitman is no Wilson for sure. Wilson was an accomplished politician. Whitman wasn’t even a particularly accomplished CEO. As a politician, she’s a disaster. She has, at least, hired a competent marketing firm.

    Whitman is also no Schwarzenegger, despite running on his platform–except for probably the immigrant thing, wherever she happens to stand on that today. Their bank accounts are also similar. But Whitman lacks any charisma at all and certainly doesn’t share Ahnold’s star power. Shallow as it may be, I still think that won him a lot of votes. In fact, I’m with Donald on her personality problems.

    And, as others have pointed out, rich candidates don’t always succeed in California. Other posters have pointed out several examples. Steve Poizner is another that leaps to mind–though the Commish didn’t really commit much of his money to the race.

    That said, I do hope Jerry Brown does get around to actually running for this office eventually. He’s making a lot of Democrats really, really nervous. If he thinks he can skate on name recognition, he’s wrong. 30 years is a long time and most people just don’t remember him. Not to mention the fact that California has a lot of young voters who weren’t out of diapers when he was governor before. Heck, I DO remember him as governor. But, did I mention 30 years is a long time? I remember he used to drive some weird old car, moved out of the mansion, and everybody called him Moonbeam. And he kept running for president and losing. Sorry. But that’s really all I remember until his more recent stints in office. And those, unfortunately, did not leave a uniformly positive impression on me.

    So I’m afraid I’m going to disagree with Mr. Mulholland, and agree with Mr. Reilly here.

  10. avatar Clint Reilly says:

    Bob, I’ve written extensively about my thoughts on Meg Whitman as a candidate and what it will take to beat her:


    Whitman’s flaws are obvious — that doesn’t change the fact that she has a bottomless bank account. That said, I’m not arguing that Jerry’s going to lose; I’m making a case for what he’ll have to do to win.

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