A visit to ‘Republican country’ shows the massive expenditures may not translate into massive support.

By Steve Lopez

March 28, 2010

The numbers are astronomical.

Some might say obscene.

Billionaire Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for governor, could have bought an atoll with what she’s spent on her campaign. She could have bought half a dozen California newspapers and filled them with photos of herself and stories about nothing else.

In 11 weeks ending March 17, she spent $27 million, most of it on TV and radio ads. That brought her to a total expenditure of about $46 million since entering the race. And it’s early. Are we looking at someone who will spend $100 million of her own money trying to get to Sacramento, or perhaps $150 million?

I was wondering about all of that last week while roaming Butte County in Northern California, where the unemployment rate sits at about 15%. I also wondered if spending that kind of dough, when people are having trouble putting bread on the table, is turning off the very voters Whitman is courting.

“That’s a lot of money for campaign ads in the middle of a recession,” said Barbara Carter, a waitress at the Black Bear Diner in Gridley, where the sign out front says “Howdy.”

Carter, a Republican who hasn’t decided whom she’ll vote for, also smacked Whitman for negative attacks on GOP candidate Steve Poizner. And Carter said she doesn’t buy Whitman’s claims that she can turn the state around.

“Promises,” Carter said. “That’s all they are.”

Three of her customers were a little more generous.

“You’ve gotta be known,” said Joe Maciel, a welder who was having breakfast with Jack Bonslett and Bob Robertson, a retired farmer and a retired mechanic.

If the goal is to be known, political rookie Whitman has already accomplished it. Everybody now knows the former EBay chief’s name, and we know she can read polls. That’s why her three primary talking points are improving education, creating jobs and lowering spending and taxes.

But even if she ends up spending $200 million, don’t expect much detail on how she intends to accomplish any of that, or how she can fire 40,000 state workers and not hurt people whose votes she wants. This is a political campaign, and as such, it will be largely idea-free, particularly over the airwaves, where you can expect months of insulting simplification and outright distortion from all contenders, Democratic candidate Jerry Brown and Poizner included.

That’s our democracy in action.

But California history — and the names Al Checchi, Michael Huffington and Steve Westly — tell us you can’t necessarily buy a political office, no matter how fat your wallet. People might get to wondering how a candidate of staggering wealth could have anything in common with them.

“If she continues to spend at this pace, she runs a real risk of over-saturating and getting to the point where every ad she runs backfires,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic political consultant with some relevant personal experience. He managed Checchi’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign, in which the airline executive and political novice spent millions of his own money only to get blown out by Gray Davis.

Sragow thinks Whitman has been smart so far, though, for a novice. It’s way too early to know anything, he said.

But Whitman’s spending has pulled her even with or ahead of Brown in the polls and all but buried her inept GOP rival Poizner, who has clownishly lurched to the right.

But at the Black Bear Diner, neither the welder, the farmer nor the mechanic said Whitman had locked up his vote in the primary, and they all said they’re still considering a vote for Brown in November. Whitman can, however, count on a vote from a retired construction worker named Jim, who wouldn’t give up his last name.

“You’re in pretty stout Republican country,” Jim reminded me, saying California is in such bad shape, he doesn’t think anyone can fix it. He’s no fan of Gov. Moonbeam, as he called Brown. He likes Whitman, and he believes spending her own money is a plus because she won’t owe anyone any favors.

On the campus of Chico State, Bill Loker, dean of undergraduate education, disagreed.

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