Wealthy candidates finding that money isn’t all it takes

Money may be the mother’s milk of all political campaigns, but it also proves how quickly it can sour.

And that will go a long way toward explaining how the very rich so often fare poorly when it comes to big races, while professional politicians have a better track record of slogging through a landscape of attack ads and personal slaps while desperately seeking dollars.

There are at least three tight races in California this year that will likely decide the fate of their celebrated contestants for years to come, where potential losses could reduce them to footnotes in history, or at least to the subject of cautionary tales.

No one faces a potentially steeper fall than Meg Whitman, who is finding just how difficult it is to preach a message of fiscal restraint while spending upwards of $120 million of her own personal fortune to win the governor’s job against the biggest brand name in California politics.

The Republican candidate isn’t just breaking campaign spending records, she’s shattering them on an almost weekly basis. By the middle of last month, Whitman had spent the most money ever in a nonpresidential campaign and had spent more than Al Gore did during his 2000 presidential run.

I guess it’s a good thing she’s not running in the other 49 states.

Yet Whitman’s spending spree has all but eclipsed her message about reforming Big Government. And, if the polls are correct, the prospect of losing remains a very real possibility.

And if that were to happen, Whitman would soar to the top of a very dubious list that includes other former business leaders who spent fortunes trying to turn to politics, including Al Checci, Ross Perot, Steve Forbes and Michael Huffington. Checci, the one-time Northwest Airlines executive spent a then-record $40 million of his own money trying to be governor of California, and he only received 13 percent of the primary vote in 1998. Magazine tycoon Forbes spent nearly $100 million in the 2000 presidential primary and went nowhere.

And nowhere is where mega-spenders go if, unlike New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, they don’t hit pay dirt.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina faces a different challenge in her quest to unseat longtime Sen. Barbara Boxer from her seat. In a year when hordes of Tea Party candidates are challenging quite strongly in states across the country, Fiorina is lagging behind Boxer in most polls, especially in the voter-rich region of Southern California.

And while Fiorina’s campaign has produced some awfully funny ads about retiring Boxer, the Republican candidate herself comes off looking hard-edged and mean on the campaign trail, traits that earned her legions of detractors among her former colleagues at the Palo Alto computer giant.

If Fiorina can’t beat a seemingly vulnerable incumbent in a year of unpredictable upsets, there are not going to be any start-ups in her political future. As with other executives-turned-office-seekers, the road to public office is littered with one-and-done’s, and Fiorina is going to have plenty of downtime in which to muse about why it’s easier to sell copiers than a cogent
campaign message.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom could be seeing his own career crossroads, though his path diverges for far different reasons. Newsom, long considered a rising star in Democratic politics, is in a very tough race against a relative no-name politician from Central California for the very reason that the liberal love affair Bay Area officials have with their constituents doesn’t translate across the vast plain of an entire nation-state.

Newsom has already faced the painful and personal setback of having to drop his sights from the governor’s mansion after failing to gain any traction against Brown in the primary and dropping out of the race. He regrouped and set his focus on the lieutenant governor’s job, but is facing a strong contest from Republican Abel Maldonado, who has the advantage of running as an incumbent after being appointed by party-mate Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Newsom would be the lamest of lame ducks if he fails. It won’t prevent him from running again, but he’ll be viewed by voters as if running in place.

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