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Whitman spent $249 a minute for her lead in the polls

The Republican's run for governor has paid off handsomely for political consultants.

March 24, 2010|By Michael Rothfeld and Jack Dolan
  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman spent $27.2 million between Jan. 1 and March 17, a campaign statement filed with the state Monday shows. Most of the money, nearly $21 million, bought airtime and production of radio and TV ads.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman spent $27.2 million between… (Bret Hartman / For The Times )

Reporting from Sacramento — What should an aspiring candidate for governor do if she has never run a campaign before and wants to nearly double her lead in polls as her party's primary election approaches?

Here is Meg Whitman's answer: Spend $358,439 a day, $14,935 an hour, $249 a minute.

The billionaire former EBay chief has distributed $27.2 million -- almost all of it her own money -- to hundreds of businesses and people in the 76 days between Jan. 1 and March 17, a campaign statement filed with the state Monday shows.

In approximately that time, she built a soaring lead over fellow Republican Steve Poizner and a narrow one over Democrat Jerry Brown in a poll released last week.

Most of the money, nearly $21 million, bought airtime and production of radio ads that Whitman began airing last fall and the television ad campaign she launched in February.

Her single largest expenditure, $6.1 million on Feb. 3, went to Smart Media Group, which buys air time, two days before she unveiled her first television ad. It portrays an optimistic Whitman amid images of desolate California landscapes.

Less than a month later, Whitman began her second series of ads. The "Why we can't trust Steve Poizner" spots have been running one after another during prime time, enumerating "reasons" related to property taxes, contributions to Democrat Al Gore and use of state resources.

Whitman has paid $770,000 to her staff since Jan. 1 and at least $106,443 to private charter airplane companies.

"We're running a campaign that is designed to get our message out, that is designed to reach voters by all different kinds of media," Whitman said at a Sacramento campaign stop Tuesday. "And then of course I'm traveling the state. . . . It's a six-day-a-week job, and we will have the resources that are required to get all the way through."

Her campaign has been a bonanza for political consultants. She paid 28 individuals or firms more than $2 million for consulting services, according to her disclosure.

Among them, a firm run by Mike Murphy, a former political advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, received $430,000, including a $250,000 initial fee and two monthly payments of $90,000 each. She paid $255,000 to the consulting firm of Spencer Zwick, who was finance director for the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, Whitman's former employer at Bain Co. and a mentor.

Whitman has injected $39 million of her own money into her race. She also has raised $1.1 million this year from independent sources, but she paid $531,269 to professional fundraisers, her filing shows -- a high ratio of expenses to fundraising, experts say.

"You would never want your cost to be in the neighborhood of 50%," said Bettina Duval, founder of the California List, a fundraising organization dedicated to electing female Democrats to state office.

Whitman's spokesman, Tucker Bounds, said much of the fundraising expense was related to work done last year.

Her campaign paid $667,411 to Tokoni Inc., a firm run byformer associates at EBay, for Internet, e-mail, website and other services.

Whitman's other expenditures included almost $9,000 at branches of the Apple Store. The campaign made two purchases at Sigona's Farmer's Market in Redwood City for a total of $518.

Several consultants said Whitman's approach -- beginning to spend on radio ads last year and moving to television this year -- has worked.

"You can say all you want as to what the public thinks about people spending lots of money," said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican political consultant who is now publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book, which tracks legislative and congressional races. "My personal opinion is they don't really care as long as it's not their own. She spent it very wisely and effectively."

Garry South, a Democratic consultant who ran Gray Davis' campaigns for governor, said Whitman is spending "at a pace that has never been seen before in a California governor's race."

But he said she did not start too early and has not bombarded viewers to the point of annoyance, as Al Checchi, a Democrat, did in 1998 when he spent tens of millions of dollars in a losing primary race against Davis.

"She's spending her money much more smartly than Checchi did," South said. "The proof's in the pudding. She's got a huge lead over Poizner and now is leading . . . Brown."

Derek Cressman, Western states regional director for Common Cause, a civic group, said wealthy candidates largely have the political arena to themselves.

"I do feel like our elections are now out of striking distance for regular people, and the only way you can run for office is to be personally wealthy yourself or be really well-connected to rich people," he said.

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