SAN JOSE -- California’s gubernatorial race is nip-and-tuck heading into the campaign’s final two weeks. Former Democratic Governor Jerry Brown wants his old job back, but former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a Republican, has other plans. A senior Whitman aide sat down with me and offered a frank state of the race assessment:
Q: Why should non-Californians care about this race at all?
A: Many Americans have a sense that what starts in California spreads to the rest of the country, for better or worse. We set a lot of trends out here, and that undeniably affects the rest of the country. Also, if our state economy isn’t healthy—which it isn’t—it drags down the entire nation’s economic performance. Look at our pension situation. Our crisis here may be more acute than what other states are facing, but the forces that have driven this problem take their cues from California. Part of that is a function of our poor governance, but some of it also has to do with larger political and demographic trends we’re contending with here in California.
Q: When you talk about “forces” that have driven the pension crisis, I assume you’re speaking of unions. New Jersey’s Governor, Chris Christie, was just here campaigning with Meg. He’s making major headway against the labor unions in a very blue state on the other side of the country. To what extent is Meg Whitman studying his example?
A: We were very excited to have Governor Christie come visit because he is a model for how to approach these issues. Meg understands that Gov. Christie has been a success story so far because he’s creating a blueprint for how a Republican can govern in a Democratic state and achieve results. Meg is paying a lot of attention to [Christie’s] battle with the teachers’ unions. In California, those unions just launched another ad this week attacking Meg. We know that if we want to change education, we’ll need Christie-like success and courage. We also love the movie Waiting for Superman, which depicts a number of public school students in failing schools competing for coveted spots in a charter school. Meg had a gut-level reaction to this film and hopes everyone gets a chance to see it.
Q: Are “Nikki-gate” and “Whore-gate” here to stay in this campaign, or are both sides moving on?
A: I can’t speak to what the Brown people are doing, but we’re making a concerted effort to get back to talking about jobs. California has an unemployment rate above 12 percent. When you don’t have a job, all these extraneous issues really don’t matter to you. They actually probably offend and frustrate you.
Q: This race has set fundraising records, and much of that is directly related to Meg Whitman’s unprecedented self-funding. She’s on the record saying she’s willing to pony up $150 Million of her own money to win this race. Does that massive level of expenditure risk turning off voters?
A: There are two ways to look at this. You can look askance at Meg’s personal spending and decide it’s over the top. Some people feel that way. The other side of it is that she is clearly making a very personal investment in taking on some enormous challenges. This state is in desperate need of major changes and by doing absolutely everything she can to win, she’s demonstrating to voters how serious she is to tackling these issues in a big way. Her self-funding also assures Californians that Meg wouldn’t be beholden to anyone at all when making governing decisions. That is the polar opposite of [Jerry Brown], whose entire campaign is bankrolled by special interests. Unions alone have already spent tens of millions against Meg in direct contributions to Brown, or in independent expenditures.
Q: Does Team Whitman view having Carly Fiorina up near the top of the ticket as a positive?
A: Oh, absolutely. The two races have totally separate dynamics, but we love Carly. Last Friday night, both Meg and Carly had a great time attending a major ‘Hispanic 100’ event in San Diego. They even took a shot of Tequila together. California Republicans are having fun this year, and there’s a great energy to both campaigns.
Q: How are the polls looking? Do you have internal numbers you’re able to talk about?
A: We are within the margin of error right now. Last time we were in the field—at the height of Nikkigate, and before the unfortunate [“whore”] recording surfaced—we were down two. This is a very, very close race. In every election I’ve ever worked on, I’ve had a sense well before Election Day which way it’s going to go. This year, I truly don’t know. I think it’s going to be long night on November 2nd, but a good night.
Q: Why are you cautiously confident?
A: First of all, we were very pleased with Meg’s debate performance in this week’s debate. She displayed a toughness that showed voters she could stand up to the unions just like she stood up to a 40-year career politician like Jerry Brown. Also, voters are tired of Jerry Brown. He’s been around for decades, he’s had his chance, and his ideas are old. We are spending lots of man-hours and money on get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. We have a great, enthusiastic volunteer base that is really getting the job done with voter contacts. We are trying to drive “low propensity Republicans” to the polls [Author's note: Carly Fiorina’s campaign manager Marty Wilson used this exact same phrase in laying out Team Carly’s path to victory]. We’ve seen that a really good GOTV push is worth 2-to-4 points in any given election. In this race, that margin could absolutely make the difference. Jerry Brown is spending all his money on the air. We’ve heard buzz that Democrats are worried about his lack of a ground game. We’re working very hard to win that battle.
Q: Do Or Die?
A common theme I’ve heard over and over again from campaign operatives, volunteers, and voters in California is that this cycle offers something of a perfect storm for the state GOP. In the top two statewide contests, Republicans are running top-flight, well-funded recruits (Whitman, Fiorina), Democrats are saddled with unpopular candidates (Brown, Boxer), the GOP is benefitting from a very favorable national political environment, voter intensity is much higher among GOP leaners, and the state’s economy is in shambles. That’s the positive political angle. The nerve-wracking side of the story? If Republicans can’t win in this auspicious atmosphere, George Will might be correct: Republicans may not compete statewide in California for at least a generation.