Whitman Ups the Ante in GOP Primary

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

When Meg Whitman dropped her check for $15 million into her campaign for governor Monday, the former eBay CEO instantly raised the ante for the GOP governor’s primary.

Whitman, who’s in her first try for public office, said she was making the three-for-one match of the first $5 million in outside contributions she’s received to show her commitment to her run for governor.

But while there are plenty of candidates committed to their campaigns, not many have a spare $15 million or so lying around to put a price tag on that commitment.

That $15 million is on top of the $4 million she already has shoveled in to stoke the “Meg for Governor” campaign boiler. Last March, Whitman suggested to Fortune magazine that she could end up spending $50 million of her own money.

That $50 million is $20 million more than it costs to run the Palo Alto Police Department for a year. Heck, it’s nearly five times the 2008-09 general fund budget for her home town of Atherton in San Mateo County.

But when you have a fortune that was estimated at $1.3 billion in 2007, $50 million really isn’t that big a dent.

Of course, money is no guarantee of victory. Just ask former state Controller Steve Westly, who spent $35.1 million of his own money to lose the 2006 Democratic primary for governor to Phil Angelides, and a bunch of other California candidates who found that cash doesn’t necessarily equal votes.

But cash does matter. And by putting this much money into her campaign now, more than 10 months before next June’s primary, Whitman is showing former San Jose Rep. Tom Campbell and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, her chief rivals for the nomination, that it’s not going to be cheap to stay in the game.

That might not be a problem for Poizner, a former high-tech businessman who sold his company, SnapTrak, for $1 billion back in 2000. He’s already put better than $4 million of his own money into his campaign, with more expected to come.

Money is a bigger problem for Campbell, a law professor who doesn’t have anything like the personal fortune of his two rivals. For now, his plan is to raise as much as he can, spend as little as he can get away with and hope that Poizner and Whitman will be so busy beating each other over the head with their checkbooks that he can slip by unnoticed on election day.

While the actual financial reports aren’t due out until the end of the month, Whitman already has announced that she’s raised more than $6 million in outside money for her campaign, compared to around $1.2 million for Poizner.

But a glance at the records already on the secretary of state’s website shows another advantage of being wealthy: you have a lot of rich friends.

While Poizner is a classic example of the high-tech entrepreneur who builds up a small company and then sells out to one of the big dogs – Qualcomm, in his case – Whitman was Silicon Valley royalty. After a decade as CEO of eBay, the on-line auction company she built into one of the nation’s best-known success stories, Whitman knew everyone there was to know in the tech biz.

With the amount of money sloshing around the high-tech universe, even in these troubled economic times, plenty of people have been willing to make the state-set maximum $25,900 contribution to help their good friend Meg.

Whitman already has more than 100 donors, including a couple of dozen from Silicon Valley, who have given that maximum contribution to her primary campaign. And that doesn’t include another 20 or so who have “only” given $25,000 to Whitman.

By contrast, Poizner only shows about 10 people who have maxed out their contributions, while Campbell is still looking for his first mega-donor.

There’s another sobering thought for anyone worried about the millions people are willing to spend for a $206,500-a-year job as governor:

This is only for the June primary. How much more cash will pour into the general election in November?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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