SACRAMENTO — If Republican front-runner Meg Whitman holds onto her double-digit lead over Steve Poizner in next week's GOP gubernatorial primary election, she is widely expected to quickly pivot toward her next target: presumed Democratic nominee Jerry Brown.
With her vast wealth and the sophisticated, high-end campaign machinery she has built around her, the billionaire ex-CEO of eBay will have the resources and nimbleness to kick off the general election campaign the day after Tuesday's primary election.
However, a coalition of labor, environmental and women's groups has an early game plan to ensure that Whitman's voice is not the only one filling the airwaves in the typically lazy aftermath of a primary.
"We can't cede any of these summer months to her campaign," said Roger Salazar, spokesman for California Working Families For Jerry Brown 2010. "We'll be looking at going on the air as soon as possible."
Brown, who has $20.6 million cash on hand for the fall campaign, has made it clear that he cannot get caught up in a spending melee with Whitman, so he must rely on outside groups to fill in the gaps.
The California Working Families coalition has not reported any contributions yet, but it is in the process of collecting about $12.5 million in pledged contributions and is expecting to raise $32 million to $36 million, a source associated with the group said.
That will not come near what Whitman, who has already spent $80 million — $68 million of which came from her own wealth — is expected to spend in the general election campaign, observers say.
As Poizner closed the gap with Whitman to a single-digit deficit last month, the California Working Families group considered pulling the trigger on a pre-primary ad campaign, sources close to the group said. However, it held fire once Whitman began to pull away toward the end of the month.
As an independent expenditure committee, the California Working Families cannot coordinate political activities with Brown, who nonetheless famously told a group of union leaders in mid-March, "I'd rather have you attack. I'd rather be the nice guy in this race. We'll leave (the attacks) to "... the Democratic Party and others."
Co-chairmen of the coalition are Lou Paulson, president of the California Professional Firefighters; Bob Balgenorth, president of the State Construction and Building Trades Council; and Bill Lloyd, president of the California Service Employees International Union.
Union money likely will be supplemented by individual donors such as billionaire Democrat Ron Burkle, the CEO of Yucaipa Companies and longtime friend of former President Bill Clinton.
The plan, Salazar said, is to provide a counter to the "soft and fuzzy" image Whitman's team likely will try to create for independent and moderate voters who have not been paying attention to the Republican primary.
"She tries to sell herself as a CEO solution to California's problems and wants to run California like a business," he said. "But the Goldman Sachs episode shows what happens when you try to do that. There are no shortcuts with California's budget problems. You can't IPO your way out of them. The Goldman Sachs episode showed she was a pretty cutthroat individual out for herself."
Whitman has been under fire for her ties to Goldman Sachs, the giant investment firm that is facing a fraud investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Whitman had to settle an eBay shareholder lawsuit after spinning initial public offerings, or IPOs, made available by Goldman Sachs for $2 million in profits, a practice made illegal after a Congressional inquiry.
The issue has been central to Poizner's campaign, but it will have a different audience over the coming five months, Salazar said.
"The most successful time Poizner had was when he was doing a good job of unmasking her," Salazar said. "But the race has been run in the bubble of a Republican electorate, which is a far different electorate than the general population. The Democratic and independent audiences are going to start paying attention to her story. There are blanks we hope to fill in."
Whitman's campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds would not comment on whether she would begin advertising the day after the primary but said "I anticipate she'll be active on the campaign trail from day one."
Bounds said attacks from Democrats are just a continuation from what Whitman has been facing for months now, citing a $1.8 million TV ad campaign by the state Democratic Party, and online assaults from other independent expenditure groups such as Level the Playing Field.
"Team Brown has already demonstrated they're more than willing to fight to protect the status quo," he said. "Jerry Brown and his union allies are probably more concerned about the fact that Meg has withstood $15 million of negative attacks (by Poizner) compounded by millions of dollars of negative attacks from their own organization."
Whitman, Bounds said, is "now in a place where if she ultimately is successful next week, she'll be a fierce competitor for victory in November."
Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.