Saturday, January 23, 2010




Tom Campbell admitted it quite frankly the morning he dropped out of the run for governor and into a crowded race for the Republican nomination to challenge three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer next fall:

“Pragmatism told me I could no longer continue in (the governor’s) race,” Campbell soberly said. “I never had the opportunity to make a lot of personal wealth.”

Campbell has been a law professor, state senator, business school dean, spent nine years in Congress and a couple as the state budget director. None of those posts are noted for their low salaries, but they won’t usually make anyone a billionaire, either.

The bottom line won out as Campbell switched to a lower-priced race. He could not compete with the two zillionaires left in the Republican race for governor (one admits to be being a billionaire; the other denies it, but plainly is close). Both Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner talk a lot about how many others have contributed to their campaigns. But there’s no denying that Whitman’s $19 million contribution to her campaign and Poizner’s $15 million donation to his drove the ultra-qualified Campbell away. The checks Whitman and Poizner wrote to themselves dwarf the totals all others have given them.

So it is now certain there will be no triangulation effect this year like the one that gave then-Lt. Gov. Gray Davis the 1998 Democratic nomination for governor over two ultra-wealthy self-funded candidates, former Northwest Airlines chairman Al Checchi and Los Angeles Congresswoman Jane Harman.

The question now is whether anyone will ever again manage to compete against the super-rich in a party primary election for a major office. So far, all the self-funded except Arnold Schwarzenegger have lost in runoff elections. The corps of the defeated over the last 40 years includes the likes of Norton Simon, William Matson Roth, Michael Huffington, plus Checchi and Harman. But costs for airing television commercials are higher than ever. So are the transportation costs so vital to a campaign.

It may be that the only way for the non-wealthy to compete effectively against unlimited big money is to pre-empt the primary election competition in your own party so that you can raise money in both the primary and general election seasons without spending much. Then add millions funneled through local, state and national party organizations. Chances are even that won’t bring in more money than a billionaire like Whitman can dump into a campaign. But it might bring enough.

Current state Attorney General Jerry Brown is now testing that pattern. Other Democrats (Orange County Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Harman) may have briefly considered running against Brown, but none of their trial balloons stayed aloft very long, even though Brown hadn’t even officially declared his candidacy as of mid-January.

That’s because Brown has built a following among Democrats and some independent voters over four decades and need not spend any money making his name recognizable. He may be unique in that way.

So Brown will likely have at least $30 million to spend next fall, and that will buy a lot of air time. Because stations have only so many commercial slots available, the Brown war chest will probably prove adequate for a strong campaign.

But what if Brown were like Campbell, not as well known as he actually is and engaged in a three-way race against virtually bottomless wallets?

Would he be able to compete today? Could a Gray Davis phenomenon occur again? Davis himself raises doubts. He enjoys chuckling over the benefits he thinks he got from Checchi’s many spots. One of them blasted career politicians and featured a Davis photo. “When that aired, I got calls from people saying they had just seen my latest commercial,” Davis smiled while telling his version of ’98. Checchi’s ads actually helped Davis.

It’s a tale straight from the old “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right” school of publicity. Don’t count on anyone repeating Checchi's mistake.

All of which means the Campbell switcheroo could be a very bad sign for the future of public affairs in California. Yes, the not-so-wealthy can still get elected to down-the-ticket jobs like lieutenant governor or treasurer, where they can hope to build enough name recognition to let them compete against the inevitable self-funded candidates of the future.

But there’s no guarantee that will ever again be enough to beat people who are otherwise unqualified, but can buy all the ads they like, as – for example – Whitman has with her ongoing months-long, seemingly ubiquitous blitz of radio commercials.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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