Two scrabble to save Calif.

As incumbent Utah Sen. Bob Bennett (R) was losing the right even to run in the primary for the seat he’s held for 18 years, word from California was coming in that Meg Whitman, long considered a shoo-in in the Golden State’s gubernatorial primary, might be in trouble.

Whitman has invested close to $60 million of her own money for the right to lead a state careening toward bankruptcy and at one point enjoyed a seemingly insurmountable lead over Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner reminiscent of, say, the lead Florida Gov. Charlie Crist once enjoyed over Marco Rubio in that state.

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In recent days Poizner has closed the gap considerably and is within eight to 10 points of Whitman in a race already far closer than anyone would have predicted possible six months ago. Poizner has thrown a good bit of the money he’s made since serving in the Bush administration into his campaign, but while his pockets are deeper than most, there’s no way he’s going to outspend former eBay CEO Whitman. If he wins the primary, it will have to be because he strikes California voters as better able to deal with the continuing crisis in which the state finds itself or because they reject Whitman as too much of an establishment candidate. Either could happen in today’s political world.

It’s difficult for one who doesn’t spend an inordinate amount of time immersed in the peculiarly unique political world Californians inhabit to understand what goes on out there, so while I won’t pretend to predict who will win the June 8 GOP primary, the contest itself is interesting and instructive.

Whitman apparently decided early on to position herself as the “establishment” candidate in the race. Her campaign chairman is former Gov. Pete Wilson, and she has sought and advertised the endorsements of every Republican with a recognizable name, from Mitt Romney to Eric Cantor. In some years, this would have been a great strategy, but this year, voters are leery of such endorsements and seek  candidates who will look at problems anew. As a result, Whitman allowed Poizner to position himself as an outsider in the year of the outsider.

The irony in this is that Poizner has run for and holds statewide office, although both candidates come from the business world. In fact, until she got involved with former Massachusetts Gov. Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, Whitman had rarely even bothered to vote — Poizner claims she hadn’t voted in 28 years; Whitman claims she distinctly “remembers” voting in 1984.

With that history, Whitman’s painting herself into a corner occupied by incumbents like Bennett in Utah and Crist in Florida that took some real doing. But then, as the Obama administration and Congress began demonizing Goldman-Sachs, Poizner began attacking her because Whitman had been on the board and made millions as a result. In politics, luck trumps everything, but a combination of bad luck and a strategy out of sync with the times can be toxic.

The real question, however, is why either Whitman or Poizner would want to spend millions for the chance to take over a failed or failing state like California. Professional politicians run because it’s what they do, but these two apparently sane candidates have a choice. The answer might just be that both of them are running because they are both publicly spirited and actually want to help rather than just serve.

Poizner put it best when I asked him some months ago why he even wanted the job. He said he believes that virtually everyone outside the state’s political establishment knows California is on the verge of going over a cliff financially, and as a result, voters will listen to hard truths from leaders who want to fix problems politicians have ignored for years. He suggests that real reform might be possible only because the state is so close to the edge.

I’ve thought about that conversation in the months since, and Poizner has a point. It might be why New Jersey’s Chris Christie has been able to win support for reforms in that collapsing state that would have been political suicide a few years ago.

Voters today are scared and are looking for new and courageous leadership; they are rejecting politicians who promise more of the leadership and policies that have led to the crises we now face. This, contrary to what one reads in Washington, is neither irrational nor dumb.

Both Poizner and Whitman come out of a world intolerant of failure. Californians can only hope that one of them will win both the primary and general election so they can bring that intolerance to the governor’s office.


Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental
consulting firm.