The Republican primary battle between eBay millionaire Meg Whitman and state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for California's governorship has taken a sharp, dramatic turn -- Poizner claims that Whitman's campaign has
him to get out of the race.
) that Poizner pollster Jan van Lohuizen received from Whitman adviser Mike Murphy. In the email, which was reportedly part of an ongoing series, Murphy urges Lohuizen to get Poizner to drop out:
The Poizner campaign responded by making the email public and referring it to the FBI, state attorney general's office, U.S. attorney's office, California secretary of state's office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Poizner said that he had an "ethical obligation" to do so. From the
However, it's hard to see how this is anything more than a political gamble by a floundering Poizner campaign. As election-law experts are already
out, Murphy did nothing illegal. It would be a different story if Whitman's campaign had made more concrete plans or bribed Poizner with cash, but it apparently isn't illegal to "just make an offer."
One campaign trying to convince another to drop out is hardly a new strategy. It's common knowledge that a bruising and expensive primary battle can hurt the victorious candidate in the general election. Whitman has a massive war chest, strong polling, and is within the margin of error when pitted against Democratic candidate Jerry Brown, according
to Rasmussen (Poizner, meanwhile, gets beaten by 10 points). Whitman's campaign has made the argument that, if Poizner drops out, he will be the natural GOP front-runner to take Sen. Diane Feinstein's senate seat in 2012 and will leave the California Republican party in much better shape.
Unfortunately for Steve Poizner, it's not that irrational of a proposition.
For months, Steve Poizner's campaign has failed to gain any sort of traction with California Republican voters. In every 2009 poll
, according to Real Clear Politics, Poizner grabbed no higher than 10 percent of the vote, while Whitman captured as high as 37 percent. When Tom Campbell, a star of the conservative movement, dropped
out of the race to run for senate instead, Whitman exploded to as high as 45 percent while Poizner remained stagnant. The latest PPIC poll puts Whitman 30 points ahead.
Of course, primary numbers can always change -- look at the turning tables in Florida's race between Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio, which has seen Rubio's campaign turn a 22-point deficit into a 12-point lead. Although Poizner is a millionaire as well, he hopes the campaign emails will help paint Whitman as an entitled, self-funded, establishment candidate, which could be particularly damaging in the current economic environment.
But Meg Whitman has already survived two disasters practically unscathed. In October, it surfaced
that Whitman had endorsed Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2003 (a cardinal sin in California Republican circles), and in September, an investigation by the Sacramento Bee sparked
an attack on her poor voting record.
As the Washington Post pointed
out, "Will voters who are worried about the morass that is California's economy be deeply affected by the fact that one candidate tried to push the other out of a race? VERY doubtful."
This blow-up doesn't make either candidate look good; Whitman looks like a bully, and Poizner looks like a whiner. But it may only draw more attention to Poizner's stalled campaign and persuade more operatives to ask him to leave.
The bottom line is that Republican and even independent voters (which current polling
shows are breaking to Whitman) in California are wary of the prospect of a Democratic governor leading a Democratic legislature through the state's economic crisis. Republicans in this deep blue state gravitate toward potential winners, and Whitman has successfully portrayed herself as that winner. On top of that, the argument that Poizner could take the GOP nomination for Feinstein's seat in 2012 is a strong one given the state's lack of other recognizable Republicans.
Of course, no one can make Steve Poizner quit. But don't be surprised if a growing number of state Republicans start believing that they will be better off if he does.