Can Meg Whitman Really Pull a Michael Bloomberg?

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Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Meg and Mike. It sounds like the title of the next quickly forgotten Jennifer Aniston rom-com. But this cute bi-coastal couple — she's a tall, brainy, Waspish billionaire; he's a short, brainy, Jewish megabillionaire — is already a major hit, and threatening to turn into a blockbuster sequel.

But enough with the tortured metaphor. Meg Whitman has followed Mike Bloomberg from tech entrepreneurial stardom into electoral politics. Like Mike the first time around, Meg has been cranky when questioned by reporters, preferring to pour $60 million into her campaign in six months and spending most of it on a radio and TV ad blitz. Whether the ex-eBay boss wins her race for governor of California, though, depends on whether Whitman can imitate more than Bloomberg's willingness to spend massive sums of his own money to be elected mayor.

The recent record of seriously rich, self-financing, formerly corporate candidates isn't especially good: Mitt Romney won in Massachusetts, but stalled in the 2008 presidential election; Jon Corzine went 2–1 in New Jersey contests; Maria Cantwell paid her own way into the Senate, Mark Dayton lost once and won once, and Pete Coors failed in his only bid. As much as big money has come to dominate politics, Bloomberg's 2001 win remains the exception rather than the rule, especially when it comes to ex-business tycoons trying to become elected executives rather than legislators. And one crucial element of Bloomberg's rookie run was that he didn't sell himself primarily as an ex-business tycoon. "The typical line from former businesspeople turned candidate is that he or she will 'run the government like a business,' but the mayor never ran his campaigns that way," says Kevin Sheekey, Bloomberg's political strategist. "Because voters don't believe government can really be run like a business, and because it's not something they actually want to be done. In 2001, Bloomberg wasn't seen as a businessman but as someone who could deal with tough times."

Whitman seems to have learned well from the Bloomberg model. She strenuously avoids mentioning she's a Republican, even though Whitman, unlike Bloomberg, has to run in a partisan primary, and she plays up her success as CEO of eBay while underplaying the tough tactics that got her to the top. "Her latest ads say she can bring business principles into government, while making it clear she understands the state is not going to be run like eBay, which is very smart," says Garry South, the political strategist for former governor Gray Davis. "I beat the last two self-financed candidates for governor, Al Checchi and Bill Simon, and she hasn't fallen into the traps those two did." Instead, Whitman has exhibited Bloomberg-like discipline in hammering home her three goals — cut government spending, create jobs, fix the schools — while smudging the specifics of exactly how she'd pull off this trifecta. "The 48-page economic blueprint she put out should have come with a set of crayons," says Bill Carrick, a veteran California Democratic consultant. "It's boilerplate nonsense."

Like Bloomberg nine years ago, Whitman will probably get a gift in the general election — an opponent who is a lifelong pol and a perpetual Democratic candidate. Jerry Brown has won more elections than Mark Green. But if Brown simply borrows from the standard New York anti-Bloomberg attack and tries to paint Whitman as an out-of-touch billionaire, he's likely to have just as much luck as Green, Freddy Ferrer, and Bill Thompson did. Anger at the recession's villains could prove more potent. "So far eMeg has been able to portray her business persona as a positive brand," says Phil Trounstine, an editor at the political website Calbuzz.com. "But we'll see how her time on the Goldman Sachs board plays in the general election."

Whitman has been steadily improving as a retail politician, and the most recent poll put her up 44–41 over Brown. Her campaign, run by the colorful Republican operative Mike Murphy, won't hesitate to mine Brown's long career for negative ads. Whitman's greatest weapon, of course, is the $150 million she is prepared to spend to get to Sacramento, a sum that would break Bloomberg's self-financing record of $108 million, set last year. But then our guy would have something to shoot for in 2012, should he run for president.