Jerry Brown finally entered the Governor’s race yesterday – after a year of pretending not to run. With a luck that appears almost zen-like, his three Democratic rivals all dropped out before he even declared – giving the Attorney General and ex-Governor a clear shot at winning the June 8th primary. But the real fight is in November, and Republican Meg Whitman has already spent more money than the “vast” resources Brown has stashed away. And the billionaire fully intends to spend even more of her money. Brown’s announcement was a low-key online affair, an anti-climactic start for the Democrats to win back control of a deep blue state. Does Brown really think he can just win on experience and high name-recognition? I had said last year that no Republican who isn’t called Schwarzenegger can win the Governor’s race. But now I’m starting to think Whitman could pull it off, unless Jerry turns things around.
There’s no good reason why Democrats cannot win the California governorship this year. Barack Obama won the state with 61% of the vote, not a single Congressional district has a majority of registered Republicans left, and Arnold’s legacy as Governor will be driving the state to bankruptcy. In other words, the real fight should have been the Democratic primary – and as long as progressives turn out the base in November, the Republican will lose.
And herein lies the rub. The Democratic base is depressed at what’s going on nationally, while Republicans are energized. Any Democratic candidate in 2010 has an uphill battle, and to overcome this you need to be aggressively campaigning. Senator Barbara Boxer should survive re-election, because she’s been out pushing her campaign for the last three years. But with November being only eight months away, Brown is just starting his campaign now.
Brown had been quietly raising money for the past year (with $12 million cash-on-hand), which was enough to intimidate Democratic rivals from the race. Political observers saw this as wise move, because he could husband his resources without having to spend that money until now. It also meant, however, that he was not building up a campaign team. It reflects the anxiety of Democrats that consultants recently came together to start an independent campaign against Whitman. She has spent $20 million defining herself, so something had to be done.
Now, they finally have a feisty candidate ready to re-claim the California Dream. But Brown didn’t choose to make his announcement at a public forum, where he could have been assured good press and momentum. Instead, he gave an online video that was well executed – but sounded like Hillary Clinton’s “I’m in it to win it” speech. I’ve been told he plans to keep things low-key until after the summer, when he can do a push after Labor Day. Phil Angelides tried a similar approach, but it didn’t go too well.
Arguably, Jerry Brown is such a known quantity – with his high name-recognition – that he doesn’t need to campaign as much. It makes more sense, from his perspective, to have Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner duke it out for the GOP nomination. But familiarity is a double-edged sword, and the Whitman campaign is already out digging the predictable dirt that an unconventional 40-plus-year political career will yield. Many voters don’t remember when Brown was Governor. He must define himself, or the opposition will.
Whitman is vulnerable. She’s running as an “outsider” (a popular theme these days), but also touts her business record at a time when business executives are not well-liked. Brown, on the other hand, deftly handled his decades of government experience – in a thinly veiled swipe at Arnold that “we tried [people who don’t know what they’re doing] and it doesn’t work.” And who can disagree that Brown has an “insider’s experience with an outsider’s mind”?
The problem is it’s going to take a lot more than that to win back the governorship. He needs to set up a grassroots infrastructure that cannot be built overnight, and that means hiring enough campaign staff to run a professional operation. Jerry Brown has not had to run a campaign with serious competition since 1982. He considered running for the U.S. Senate in 1991, but dropped out when he saw the Democratic nomination was not assured – and his 1992 presidential campaign was quixotic. Oakland Mayor was handed to him.
It’s time for Jerry Brown to not take this for granted. The stakes are simply too high …