What Does Meg Whitman's $120 Million Really Buy?

Meg Whitman has spent more running for California governor than Al Gore spent running for President, but is it the money or the message that matters?

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Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

Republican Nominee Meg Whitman greets potential voters after speaking at Function Drinks, a small start up company in Culver City on September 14, 2010.

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Of course, there's still plenty of old-fashioned spending—like the $10 million she had showered by June on consultants, including $90,000 per month to the firm of her top strategist, Mike Murphy. Whitman advisers note that Brown has been backed by a few million dollars in union advertising, with more likely to come. But even with the spending of outside groups factored in, Brown's side could be outspent by more than 5 to 1. Indeed, Whitman's spending on polling, information technology and office-related matters alone—almost $6 million as of June—exceeds Brown's total budget so far.

But Is Anyone Listening?
The question is whether—and at what point—Whitman's largesse might boomerang on her and turn off voters who are struggling to get by in a wheezing economy. One person who thinks that's already happening is Chuck Idelson, spokesman for the 86,000-member California Nurses Association, which has been among Whitman's harshest critics—thanks in part to her pledge to fire 40,000 state employees. Idelson calls Whitman's campaign spending a "corruption of our political process" and says it explains why recent polls show an uptick in negative opinions of her (although the same is true of Brown). To drive home the point, the nurses' union hounds Whitman with Queen Meg, a gown-and-crown-clad actress who parades around regally outside the candidate's political events. On Labor Day, Queen Meg hit parades across the state, passing out pink slips with white-gloved hands.

Does it somehow contaminate the democratic process when a billionaire candidate swamps an opponent with campaign spending? Whitman, like wealthy candidates before her, says it's just the opposite: that she is free from the influence of campaign donors and the kinds of interest groups backing Brown. "Meg will not be beholden to anyone," says Stutzman. "Brown will be beholden to status-quo public labor unions."

And despite the grousing about rich people buying elections, it's not that easy. Just ask past presidential hopefuls like Ross Perot ($65.4 million in 1992) and Steve Forbes ($76.1 million in 2000). Or the conservative New York businessman Tom Golisano, who dropped $74 million on a governor's race in 2002—and won 14% of the vote. In fact, the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that from 2000 to 2009, only 11% of some 6,000 state-level candidates who contributed at least half of their campaign's spending from their own pockets ended up winning.

So far this year, however, big spenders have had some success. Yes, Florida Democratic Senate candidate Jeff Greene, a billionaire known for partying on his yacht with Mike Tyson, reportedly spent more than $23 million of his fortune on an August primary defeat. But also in Florida, businessman Rick Scott won a Republican gubernatorial primary after spending $50 million of his cash. And in Connecticut, pro-wrestling executive Linda McMahon spent $22 million successfully clobbering her opponent in the fight for a GOP Senate nomination.

But more ominously for Whitman, California has several notable entries on the list of self-funders who went nowhere: Democrat Al Checchi spent $40 million and landed 13% of the primary vote in his 1998 bid for governor, while Republican Michael Huffington spent $28 million on his 1994 Senate campaign, only to lose.

The lesson is that "you can't spend your way into becoming a good candidate," says David Donnelly, a campaign-finance reformer with the Public Campaign Action Fund. But many a good candidate doesn't have the money to be heard.

One solution: limiting how much money a candidate can give to her own campaign. The Supreme Court has already called that a violation of free speech, however, meaning it would require a constitutional amendment (not very likely) to change it. Other options include a system of public financing for cash-poor candidates—or, as many conservatives propose, an end to all campaign-finance limits. That way a candidate could accept huge donations from wealthy supporters to match Whitman's personal largesse.

Congress has shown little appetite recently for major campaign-finance reform, but a Whitman victory could revive the debate. First, it remains to be seen whether this political newcomer and her avalanche of money can win one of the biggest jobs in American politics. "We've never seen anything like this," says South, "so it's very hard to make predictions." If Whitman does prevail, who knows how the next record will be set? But there's long been talk that Mayor Bloomberg may someday mount a self-financed run for President--an adventure that could easily cost more than $500 million. Even Meg Whitman might call that a lot of money.

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