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.