California Republican gubernatorial campaign enriches stations

The major networks are actually feeling pretty good about themselves. Not only did they introduce a few hits this season, but all indicators say the advertising market is poised for a significant rebound when they negotiate upfront media buys for the coming season.

Still, if broadcast honchos really want to demonstrate the enduring power of advertising, they should direct buyers’ gaze to the opposite coast — California has often been a trend-setter — and utter two simple words: Meg Whitman.

The former eBay CEO has mounted a credible campaign to become California’s next governor, built largely on the strength of using her personal fortune to fund an advertising onslaught. Whitman’s contributions to her own campaign reached almost $60 million in April, paying for a carpet-bombing barrage on TV and radio.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this has proved remarkably effective in a state that recalled Gov. Gray Davis and installed Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him. Moreover, because California is so geographically vast and demographically diverse, pressing the flesh in person has never been as effective as saturating the airwaves.

Whitman is dipping into her sizable bank account to do just that. The question is whether her war chest can overcome a plethora of potential problems, beginning with the candidate’s voting record — not on any key issues in the traditional sense, but actually in terms of going to the polls. As the Sacramento Bee reported, Whitman had a spotty history of not bothering to vote over the last 25 years before making the leap into politics.

Of course, Schwarzenegger also had a limited political resume before being swept into office, but at least he was well known. By contrast, Whitman’s bid to govern the U.S.’ most-populous state has depended almost entirely on riding a tide of 30-second spots.

The fact that the bloom is largely off the Schwarzenegger rose among conservatives (his popularity has diminished sharply) hasn’t prevented Whitman from running on a similar pro-business, low-taxation, common-sense-solutions platform. Her Republican primary challenger, insurance commissioner Steve Poizner, has responded with his own late flurry of commercials (their race will conclude June 8) in which Schwarzenegger’s face literally morphs into that of Whitman. Then again, what would a big-budget Hollywood production be without special effects?

Notably, Whitman isn’t the only business executive trying to make the transition to politics in California, relying on TV ads to package and sell themselves. U.S. Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina, formerly of Hewlett-Packard, made her own waves (as in a perhaps-unintended YouTube sensation) with what came to be known as the “Demon sheep” ad, seeking to depict her U.S. Senate primary rival Tom Campbell as a creepy-looking wolf in sheep’s clothing.

No slouch himself, Poizner is also a millionaire many times over who has donated heavily to his own campaign — which has used broadcast ads attacking Whitman to carve into her early lead, based on recent polling data. Indeed, radio spots feature GOP politician Tom McClintock urging voters to reject Whitman while stating that “our party and its principles shouldn’t be sold off on eBay.”

Given that California is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, grappling with high unemployment and has a political system that virtually ensures gridlock, it will be interesting to see whose broadcast-driven pitch ultimately closes the sale. At this point, with reporters focusing on Whitman’s past activities — including stock dealings with Goldman-Sachs — the Republican primary is looking like a war of attrition, as the bruised combatants trade on-air jabs.

Yet while the presumptive Democratic nominee, Jerry Brown, has laid low watching his potential rivals duke it out, even some Democratic insiders fear Whitman’s financial resources pose a serious challenge.

Whether that’s good news for California remains to be seen — but the entire race says a lot about the corrosive linkage between money and politics.

For those hammering out advertising deals and media buys in the next weeks, however, it’s potentially a great endorsement. Because even if Whitman falters, her decline can be traced to the same source that fueled her rise: those little cinematic gems between the actual programs — the ones we DVR-using snobs tend to assume people don’t watch anymore — and their lingering powers of persuasion.

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