Go Westly, Young Man

Something inevitable is happening in California -- Steve Westly has taken the lead in the Democratic primary to pick a candidate to square off against ...
by | April 26, 2006

Westly Something inevitable is happening in California -- Steve Westly has taken the lead in the Democratic primary to pick a candidate to square off against Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It didn't always seem inevitable. Phil Angelides, the state treasurer, has spent most of his time in office positioning himself as the anti-Schwarzenegger, bad-mouthing virtually everything the governator has proposed. That seemed like a workable strategy in the Democratic-leaning state, particularly amidst all of Schwarzenegger's fumblings last year.

What's more, Angelides had locked up most of the worthwhile party endorsements and didn't have a big-name challenger. Westly, the state comptroller, was little-known. He was once derided by Republican state Senator Tom McClintock as the emptiest suit he had encountered in 25 years in politics.

Ouch. But despite all that, Westly had some key advantages.

Westly's main advantage is that he has lots of money. Westly was an executive at eBay early and has amassed a fortune that has allowed him to spend more than $20 million already on a primary campaign that still has more than a month to go.

That money has gone toward a TV ad campaign that is as warm and fuzzy as you could want, positioning Westly as a welcome moderate who stands in stark contrast to the more prickly Angelides.

As a result, Westly has opened up a big lead in the polls. Many Democratic voters remain undecided, though. How is Angelides seeking to win their hearts? By talking up the virtue of tax increases.

The Sacramento Bee has this account of his appearance before the California Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday: "Candid if not popular, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides told the state's business leaders Tuesday that if he's elected, he'll be asking them to 'invest in our people' by paying more taxes -- a campaign pledge that didn't exactly play well with his audience. It even caused a few in the crowd to walk out."

The state's business leaders are not exactly the core of the Democratic primary electorate, but I'm willing to bet Angelides' message plays little better among the public at large.

But the larger point is that Angelides has relied too heavily on an old-fashioned campaign strategy, depending on name i.d. and insider support. Westly, in keeping with his zippy New Economy wealth, grasped something more essential about contemporary campaigning, which is what you can afford to say about yourself on television is what people are doing to know about you.

That's something that Schwarzenegger certainly understands. Westly will need some really good ads in the fall.