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Kai Ryssdal: Last night was primary night in a lot of states. Out here in California, though, we are well into general election season. Yesterday, we told you about former eBay CEO Meg Whitman and how she’s trying to become the governor of California. A big part of her strategy is sheer financial firepower. She’s spent $100 million so far. Her Democratic opponent Jerry Brown hasn’t. Brown served two terms as governor back in the 1970s. He’s now the state attorney general. His campaign’s spent less than a million dollars.
April Dembosky reports Brown does seem to relish the spending gap.
April Dembosky: One of the things Jerry Brown is best known for is the blue Plymouth Satellite he drove when he was governor of California. He snubbed the chauffeured limousine and refused to live in the governor’s mansion. Brown says his thrift dates back to his days in a Jesuit seminary.
Jerry Brown: I spent many, many hours studying about the virtue of poverty.
Brown is no pauper. He has investments and lives in a $1.8 million house in the Oakland hills. But his pockets aren’t nearly as deep as Whitman’s.
His campaign is headquartered in a former box company warehouse in Oakland. Makeshift plastic desks line the walls, a sign in the kitchen beckons staff to take turns bringing in coffee. The day I visited, the phones weren’t working.
In the face of his opponent’s wealth, Brown is turning his penny pinching into a campaign message.
Brown: The word “frugality” is not something we hear anymore.
In some ways, Brown has little choice but to make a virtue of his thrift. He doesn’t have the money to match Whitman’s spending on advertising. His most recent financial disclosure shows his campaign has $23 million — about half of what Whitman has already spent on TV, radio and Internet ads. Brown devotes about a third of his campaign time to fundraising. Much of the rest of the time, he’s giving interviews and trying to score free media at rallies and other events. He also gets news coverage in his role as attorney general.
Recent polls have the candidates running about even.
Allan Hoffenblum: Jerry Brown is reacting rather than pro-acting.
Allan Hoffenblum publishes an annual guide to California elections and has consulted for Republican candidates.
Hoffenblum: He’s reacting to the Meg Whitman campaign, he’s reacting to news reports that he hasn’t put together a good message, he’s reacting to Democratic activists saying, “When are you going to get your act together?”
Those activists would mainly be labor unions, who see Whitman’s agenda mostly focused on the wealthy. Brown isn’t planning to start his campaign in earnest until after Labor Day. He doesn’t want to risk running out of money in the critical weeks before the November 2 election. In the meantime, the unions are trying to counter Whitman’s barrage of radio and TV spots with ads on Brown’s behalf.
Union anti-Meg Whitman ad: Meg Whitman’s never let the truth or the rules get in the way of helping herself.
So far, Brown’s allies have spent about $8 million. But they’re relying even more on their manpower. Rebecca Greenberg is with the California Labor Federation. It represents more than two million union members in private and public sector jobs.
Rebecca Greenberg: We will be outspent. We will be outspent, maybe by 5-to-1, but we will not be out-organized. We’ve got the boots on the ground.
Last week, the group teamed up with a local union of engineers in downtown Oakland.
Greenberg: Quick information from the union about Meg Whitman?
Six organizers handed out scores of fliers to other unionized workers getting off their shift.
U.C. San Diego political science professor Thad Kousser is an expert on California politics. He says the unions’s one-on-one strategy has a record of success.
Thad Kousser: That works a lot better than an anonymous phone bank with a robo call urging you to turn out to vote.
But the problem with California, he said, is the state is just too big to knock on everyone’s door.
Kousser: We have to have wholesale rather than retail politics in California. So if you want to reach 10 million voters, you’re going to do that much more effectively with television commercials than you are with even the best organized set of ground troops.
Brown isn’t planning to air his first campaign ads until the second week of September.
Brown: There is the old story of the tortoise and the hare. And the hare jumps around almost like a 30-second spot, but at the end of the day, it’s the tortoise that gets across the finish line.
Of course, that’s because the hare takes a nap in the middle of the race. Whitman has millions more to spend, and Brown shouldn’t expect her campaign to rest any time before election day.
In Oakland, Calif., I’m April Dembosky for Marketplace.
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