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Meg Whitman's campaign spending is causing a stir

The Republican gubernatorial candidate in California has doled out $19 million so far, with the election still seven months away. Her pace is called 'unprecedented' by one campaign veteran.

November 04, 2009|Shane Goldmacher

SACRAMENTO — The radio ads have aired daily across the state since she declared her bid for governor in September.

"I'm Meg Whitman," one begins, "and I want to talk to you about California. . . ."

The costly airtime -- with the primary election still seven months away -- is just one way the former eBay chief is spending the $19 million of her personal fortune that she has plowed into the race.

The first-time candidate, a Republican, has also paid for an army of advisors, pricey plane rides and a big technology tab. She spent $6 million in the first half of the year.

That sum dwarfed the combined spending of all the other gubernatorial hopefuls: two fellow Republicans, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former Congressman Tom Campbell; and two Democrats, state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom quit the race Friday.

Whitman has publicly floated the notion of a record-shattering $150-million campaign budget. That number is turning heads, even among campaign veterans accustomed to deep-pocketed politicos blowing through millions at a time.

Whitman's pace is "unprecedented spending for a California gubernatorial race," said Jude Barry, campaign manager for the last mega-rich candidate to run for governor, Steve Westly.

She spent almost as much on chartered jets ($111,706) as Campbell spent in total ($147,030) from January through June, the latest financial reporting period. Her Internet operation cost nearly $1 million. "Nowhere near that has been spent in the past in any campaign that I've ever seen," veteran GOP consultant Richard Temple said of Whitman's Web platform.

The Poizner campaign, in comparison, spent $106,000 on technology.

Whitman spared no expense wining and dining contributors -- racking up a nearly $11,000 catering bill at one late May fundraiser that drew 33 attendees.

"We have a budget that's designed for victory," said Whitman spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Poizner spent a total of $1.55 million through June. Newsom spent $1.47 million and Brown $170,000.

Whitman's net worth is estimated at $1.2 billion. That wealth has translated into big paychecks for campaign consultants.

While most candidates have a small corps of highly paid strategists, Whitman has dozens of advisors on monthly retainers that totaled more than a half-million dollars in June alone.

Her media strategists at Scott Howell & Co. collected $300,000 through June. Henry Gomez, a confidant from her eBay years, pulled in $108,000, records show. A half-dozen other aides and advisors each earned more than $20,000 per month.

Whitman has spent nearly as much on staff and consultants ($2.66 million in the five months ending in June) as mega-millionaire Westly did on personnel in his entire 2006 campaign ($2.95 million).

Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist who ran Northwest Airlines magnate Al Checchi's 1998 campaign for governor, said a billionaire running for governor is like "catnip" to political professionals.

"How does [Whitman] feel about being seen as an ATM machine by a lot of political consultants?" Sragow asked. "She may not care."

In addition to her own wealth, Whitman has raised $7.7 million in contributions this year, far more than either Republican rival or Brown. Poizner has raised $1.07 million, Campbell $455,000 and Brown $4.15 million, campaign records show.

Whitman's financial firepower, of course, helped catapult the political neophyte to the top tier of candidates. And in a state the size of California -- where an October Field Poll said 68% of residents had no idea who she is -- her money will be key. It can buy TV ads, pay for field offices and build name recognition.

It's all "essential to winning," said Bounds, and will help spread Whitman's "message of cutting spending, growing jobs and fixing education."

The Poizner campaign says Whitman is trying to buy her way into office.

"There are the standard parts of running for office that she's skipping," said Poizner spokesman Jarrod Agen, citing her refusal to engage in early debates and her spotty voting record. "Instead, she's just writing checks."

Poizner is no pauper himself. He sold a high-technology company for $1 billion in 2000, and plunged $12 million of his fortune into his 2006 election as insurance commissioner.

Californians are not always swayed by extravagant campaign spending.

"The political fields are littered with dead bodies of rich candidates," Temple said.

Westly spent $35 million of his own money before losing the primary election in 2006. Checchi burned through $40 million in his race, also losing in the primary.

If Whitman loses, "then she recklessly overspent. If she wins, then the extra money was obviously very well spent," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "We won't know the answer until election day."

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shane.goldmacher@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Campaign spending

GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman has far outspent others running for governor or exploring a run.

SPENDING AND ACCRUED BILLS*

Former EBay CEO Meg Whitman (R)

Total: $6.045 million

Campaign staff/consultants: $2.66 million

Polling: $430,723

Chartered jets: $111,706

Airfare on Southwest: $21,251

Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner (R)

Total: $1.548 million

Campaign staff/consultants: $934,000

Polling: $0

Top paid consultant: $115,000 (Meridian Pacific)

Legal/accounting: $115,035

State Atty. Gen. Jerry

Brown (D)

Total: $170,356

Campaign staff/consultants: $10,940

Internet expenses: $16,765

Polling: $0

Legal/accounting: $5,248

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell (R)

Total: $147,030

Campaign staff/consultants: $47,587

Internet expenses: $66,530

Polling: $2,500

Top paid advisor: $24,057 (Hana Callaghan)

*January through June 2009, the latest financial reporting period

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Sources: California secretary of state, Times reporting

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