Meg Whitman Runs for California Gold

Washington Matters

Meg Whitman Runs for California Gold

The formal announcement by billionaire businesswoman Meg Whitman that she will run for governor of California next year as a Republican bears close watching from east to west. It not only shakes up the race to govern the most populous state but also may be the first chapter in her rise nationally.

Whitman, 53, the former chief executive of eBay who built the online site into an Internet powerhouse, brings serious credentials to the field, topped by business savvy, a network of Republican support nationwide and a personal boatload of money. Whitman reportedly says she may spend as much as $150 million, most of it from her own fortune, in the campaign. She's already poured $19 million into prep-work, establishing statewide offices and hiring staff. That's as much as the cost of some big-state senate races combined.

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While short on specifics for now, she pledges if elected to cut 40,000 state public sector jobs and slash state spending by another $15 billion on top of large cuts already agreed to in the next two years by the state assembly and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, who is term limited from running again. She also proposes using an executive order to terminate a state global-warming law enacted two years ago that she says will hurt California's economy and cost jobs. She wants it reworked. If jobs and the economy are key issues in California next year, her generally conservative jobs-focus platform could strike a popular chord, and her effectively unlimited campaign account could smother opponents. 

Her main rivals for the GOP nomination are former Rep. Tom Campbell and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. Possible Democratic rivals include former governor and current state attorney general Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Democrats will call her a cookie-cutter conservative who would wreck state services and the environment, but it's unclear how much weight that will have if Whitman gains ground with moderates at a time when jobs and household economics trump other voter issues.


At this early stage, the race is a toss-up. Much can and will change, but Whitman will command much interest even given that California is generally Democratic leaning.  

Whitman is already assembling a strong statewide team, lead by campaign chairman and former governor Pete Wilson. She was national co-chairman of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign and will get organizational and voter mobilization support from the Republican National Committee. She doesn't need their money but could use other types of on-the ground assistance. She won't rely on support from Schwarzenneger, whose popularity has fallen considerably. She'll keep a polite distance from the current governor, not running against his record or making him part of the political equation for 2010.

Were she to be nominated, Whitman may also benefit some from the natural ebbing of support nationally for the party in control of the White House.  

If she were to win next year, there's a good chance she would be presiding in 2011 over a rising economy in California and an improved jobs picture. That wouldn't hurt her if she is tempted to run for president in 2012. The White House would have to worry about such a prospect. Obama probably can't win re-election without California's 53 winner-take-all electoral votes. That's another chapter, far from being written as yet. But it's something we'll be hearing more about if Whitman proves a California charmer.