Rich Women Parachute Jump in California Races: Margaret Carlson

Parachuting into high office is nothing new for wealthy men: former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine made millions at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., ex-presidential contender John Edwards got his fortune chasing ambulances, and Wisconsin Senator Herbert Kohl built his selling socks and toasters at the family’s department store chain.

The bug hits when they run out of things money can buy -- Kohl already owned the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team before joining the Senate -- or get otherwise bored.

For those with independent means, there is no need to stuff envelopes, serve on the school board or cozy up to precinct captains. You just stand atop your money, shout “I’m running,” and, voila, start at the top. Inexperience, an inability to inspire or stupidity aren’t necessarily fatal drawbacks.

Using that model, two wealthy California businesswomen who barely cared enough to vote, are about to make history: tomorrow Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are likely to become the first Republican women ever nominated for governor and senator, respectively, in California.

Whitman, former chief executive of EBay Inc., leads state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner by a two-to-one margin heading into the state’s June 8 Republican gubernatorial primary. The winner is likely to face former California Governor Jerry Brown in the fall. Fiorina, who became rich as CEO of Hewlett-Packard Co., is ahead by 20 points in two recent polls and is poised to take on Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer in November.

Spending $80 Million

Multibillionaire Whitman is the far richer of the two, and she’s spent about $80 million of her own money on the race. When she saw Poizner drawing within 9 points of her, she just pulled a checkbook out of her designer bag, purchased perhaps on EBay, and wrote another check.

What both have going for them besides their cash (Fiorina has spent $5.5 million so far) is the country’s sour mood, which gives anyone, even a CEO, a leg up over a career politician. Even failing to vote -- which both of them have been guilty of for most of their adult lives -- barely caused a ripple. The important thing is they’d never passed a law or spent a taxpayer’s dime.

Nowhere is money more important than California, where a campaign rally consists of two people in front of a TV. Whitman is shy and tentative in person, her only laugh a nervous one. But in paid ads, she’s Superwoman, able to erase her frequent on-the-stump blunders.

Blurting Out Proposals

Billionaires get used to people agreeing with whatever they say and so blurt things out with abandon. Whitman had the bright idea that the way to make Sacramento work better is getting legislators to form themselves into teams around specific issues, much as every legislative group, federal or state, is already organized. She also boasted that she would sue folks who should be sued, except that she has no jurisdiction over the state’s top lawyer. She proposed cutting the capital-gains tax and was surprised when it looked self-serving since it would cut her own tax bill by half.

Until recently, Whitman has campaigned generally on safe topics -- schools, jobs, and spending cuts. But she’s increasingly careful about the likeliest primary voters on the right. She’s for a moratorium on efforts to cope with global warming and when Poizner gained on her, she came out with an anti-immigrant ad that would make the governor of Arizona blush. It worked.

Fiorina is a more polished candidate, having learned the hard way -- as a surrogate for presidential candidate John McCain -- to stay on message. When she remarked that neither he nor Barack Obama were equipped to run a major corporation, she was yanked off the air for a while.

Demon Sheep

Her tack in the race has been to make former Congressman Tom Campbell’s political experience a debilitating factor. One of her campaign ads depicts her opponent as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It shows an actor in a sheep suit with blood-red eyes leading other sheep, not to slaughter but to more spending. The tag line says, “FCINO -- fiscal conservative in name only.” In another ad, Fiorina looks into the camera and asks viewers about politicians: “Had enough?” “Me, too,” she answers.

Fiorina emphasizes her humble beginning as the daughter of a school teacher (a law school professor who became a federal judge) and her stint as a secretary (while she earned her M.B.A.). Degree in hand, she worked her way up quickly at Lucent Technologies and then at Hewlett-Packard where she became CEO in 1999. She says that the chemotherapy and radiation she just went through for breast cancer makes Senator Boxer not the least bit scary.

Face Right

What Whitman and Fiorina have done by moving to the right is succeeding -- if you are thinking about the primary tomorrow. But it’s not without problems if you are thinking about the election in November. Whitman’s ad buy in May beat back Poizner but hurt her among Latinos. In April Whitman led former Governor Brown by three points and she now trails him by six.

Fiorina, who has a Tea Party challenger, has moved even further to the right, going so far as to say in a debate that she would allow people on the No-Fly list to buy guns. She has become pro-offshore drilling, ardently anti-abortion, pro-repeal of health-care reform, anti-tax -- she signed a no-increase pledge -- and describes concerns about climate change as being “worried about the weather.”

When asked about Sarah Palin last year, Fiorina sniffed, “I’ve never met her. Next question?” She’s now happily accepted Palin’s endorsement. This helped the once-moderate Fiorina leap ahead of Campbell who led in polls until a few weeks ago, and keep Tea Partier Chuck DeVore at 16 percent. But it hasn’t helped her against Boxer whom she trails by six points.

In the general election, Fiorina might have an easier time against Boxer than Whitman against Brown. Although a former governor, former mayor, and current attorney general, Brown isn’t your ordinary incumbent. He never moved into the governor’s mansion, lives on roots and berries and eats CEOs for lunch. Whitman, not a good debater, wriggled out of all but one aired at 3 p.m. on a Sunday. He’s the one candidate against which the $150 million she’s pledged to spend won’t be a stake in the heart.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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