Forty-nine weeks before California Republicans pick their candidate for governor, Tom Campbell is winning the Press Corps Primary, Steve Poizner leads the Attack Dog Primary and Meg Whitman is way ahead in the Fred Barnes/Weekly Standard Sloppy Wet Kiss Primary.
The shape of the GOP nomination race remains unformed and uncertain, unlike the Democratic contest, which has settled — at least for now — into a mano-a-mano match-up. In contrast to Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, the GOP contenders have been less visible, their competition to date waged largely for the benefit of the cognoscenti over endorsements, free media and the occasional cheap shot zinger.
The only reliable data we’ve seen is a Field Poll from March that found Whitman at 21%, Campbell at 18% and Poizner at 7%. But these numbers have little meaning since only 28% of Republicans have any opinion about Whitman and just 40% have a view on Campbell. And even though Poizner is a statewide officeholder, only 42% of Republcans have an opinion about him.
A key tactical moment for the Reeps will come Tuesday, however, when the rivals show their cards — and balance sheets – for the first big cash-raising period of the Money Primary. With eMeg and the Poison Commish, the two self-made Silicon Valley zillionaires, maneuvering to emerge as the favorite moderate of the right-wing primary voters, media coverage of the new fundraising reports will be crucial in shaping the narrative of the early stage of the campaign. (Even if most of the media coverage misses the point. See #1 below.)
With no clear front-runner among the three candidates now running – a fourth is still playing Hamlet – the campaign at this point is all about fundamentals: money, organization and message. With that in mind, here is a look at five key questions about the GOP primary:
1. Who wins the money primary – and does it really matter?
As a practical matter, neither Whitman nor Poizner needs to raise a dime from outside sources, since they’re both wealthy enough to finance their campaigns for governor and buy a couple of small island nations with the leftover change. For them, political contributions are not about raising the funds to run a campaign operation –- as they are for most mortal candidates. For Whitman and Poizner, fundraising is a kind fiscal Potemkin villagism –- done mainly for symbolic reasons to demonstrate that someone other than the candidate believes enough to invest in the campaign.
That’s why the Whitman campaign for months has been talking up expectations about her reporting at least $5 million raised this week, much of it from individual and organizational donors rather than from her own bank account. Raising a bunch of dough she doesn’t really need, the campaign hopes, will establish Whitman as a viable candidate who is more than a business executive dabbling in politics: “We will not disappoint,” said Whitman spokesman Mitch Zak. “The fundraising primary is a good indication of who can move voters.”
Poizner – who, in the past, has argued that campaign contributions are a measure of external support — has been more circumspect about how much he’ll report. But his handlers set out to inoculate their guy from a big eMeg money report, writing in a memo to his steering committee today:
“Many candidates are either ‘money’ candidates who rely on fundraising but lack a strong connection with voters or activists while others are ‘grassroots’ candidates who have difficulty raising the money necessary to get their message out and can rely only on volunteers and activists. Steve Poizner is unique in that he will have a fully-funded campaign with the resources necessary to get his message out as well as have impressive grassroots support that is vital in GOP primaries.”
As for Campbell, he will be the poor church mouse of the race and knows that no matter how much raises, his well-heeled foes will always have more.
2. How much do endorsements matter?
Poizner jumped out early in the campaign, starting last year to begin rounding up dozens of local, legislative and congressional endorsements that gave him a head start in putting together a statewide campaign organization. With a wide-open race, the endorsements of elected officials matter more than usual for 2010, because they can provide the infrastructure for registration, absentee and turnout operations, by offering volunteers, mailing lists and contributors.
For Poizner – who isn’t as personally wealthy as Whitman – endorsements are a kind of political currency. He’s been racking ‘em up like Phil Angelides did in the Democratic primary in 2006 – hoping to build a firewall against eMeg’s money.
In the last several weeks, however, Whitman has succeeded in flipping half-a-dozen former Poizner endorsers, including three legislators, a House member and a county chairwoman, all of whom withdrew their endorsements of the insurance commissioner and started singing the praises of eMeg. That’s the same as snatching Poizner’s purse.
At one point amid the rash of defections last week, Poizner chairman Jim Brulte responded by sending out a letter to GOP lawmakers in a bid to settle things down, contrasting his guy’s political and start-up business experience with Whitman’s CEO gig at eBay: “Though she has much to offer,” Brulte said of eMeg, “her campaign is once again proving why first time candidate business executives never win.”
“Voters simply don’t buy the connection that running an online auction company is the best training ground for our next governor,” he added. “And never in modern history has there been a worse time to be running on the ‘corporate CEO’ brand.”
Whitman’s sudden entry into the grassroots endorsement race, which clearly stung Team Poizner, followed several months when she gave a series of interviews to national media and became the flavor of the month for Beltway establishment Republicans. Among other props, she earned a gushy cover piece in the conservative Weekly Standard by Fred Barnes and the backing of high-profile GOPers, from ex-presidential candidate John McCain to congressional wunderkid Eric Cantor.
To a large extent, the jousting over endorsements is total inside baseball; like the battle of perception over fundraising. However, it matters as a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy: if members of Congress and the Assembly who’ll be facing election themselves next year stand up for a candidate for governor, it sets a marker for voters in their districts about who they should think about backing.
3. What do the candidates stand for?
With the economy and the state’s failing budget the only issues that matter for now, Whitman and Poizner have both been content to stand atop the hill, watching the battle and mouthing conservative platitudes that could be drawn from the 1996 Steve Forbes for president campaign, or the Milton Friedman script for almost any GOP nominating contest in the nation.
Campbell, by contrast, has been aggressive in analyzing, commenting and proposing on the state budget issue, partly because of his experience and background as an economist and public finance expert and partly because he has no choice. Unable to compete with Whitman and Poizner for money, Campbell needs to keep a high profile in the news; he’s helped in this effort because reporters generally respond favorably to his mix of specific, thoughtful ideas about the state’s problems, regular guy persona, and his instant accessibility to anyone with a notebook or a microphone.
As a policy matter, Campbell’s disciplined brand of fiscal conservatism comes with a strain of non-ideological realpolitick – as shown by his support for a short-term increase in the gas tax to ease the deficit, a proposal that may cause him a world of hurt in the primary. Whitman and Poizner for their parts have both largely avoided talking to California reporters familiar with the issues (about that interview with Calbuzz…) and so far have offered little but empty rhetoric and knee-jerk Republican talking points on fiscal issues.
4. Who is Peter Foy and why would he matter?
Foy is a conservative Ventura County supervisor who’s been doing a dance of the seven veils for months about whether or not he’ll enter the race.
Foy has never run statewide and has the naïve and breezy assurance of an overconfident former business executive who hasn’t learned that this stuff is harder than it looks. The reason anyone is still paying attention to him is that, unlike the trio of contenders now on the field, he’s pro-life and conservative on other cultural issues. As we wrote several months ago, the evangelical and social conservative bloc of the GOP does not have a horse in the race, and if Foy ever stops flapping his gums long enough to make a decision to get in, he’d likely begin with a double-digit base and shake up the race.
Were he to get in, Calbuzz thinks the most likely casualty would be Poizner, who has been trying to roll up conservative support for his anticipated battle with eMeg.
5. How bad will the economy get?
With all the signs suggesting that California will be in a deepening recession well into next year, it’s impossible to know whether voters in 2010 will be in the mood for a dose of Republican tax-cut, slash-and-burn orthodoxy, or looking to government to help ease the economic pain.
At this point, Whitman and Poizner have not offered even a hint that they think the government should do much beyond fire tens of thousands of employees and offer more tax breaks to business to help those affected by the recession. Campbell alone has put forward a proposal that offers a strategic look at what government can and should do to help create jobs and stem the loss of business to other states.
One night last week, Campbell got on the phone with several thousand voters who’d responded to a mass robo call inviting them to talk to the candidate on a teleconference, one of the cheapo campaign tactics he’ll be counting on. At one point, the several thousand people on the call were asked to do a touch tone poll to indicate what they identify as the state’s most important issue: the economy and the budget finished far ahead at one and two, a result that had the Campbell camp smiling.