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California GOP Ad Battles: Pure Genius or Political Suicide?

5 years ago
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In the midterm elections taking place this November, Californians will be deciding on not only a controversial ballot initiative essentially legalizing marijuana, but also who our new governor will be and whether to replace one of two Democratic women in the U.S. Senate with a Republican. It is perhaps fitting, given the unfavorable (and record-low) ratings of incumbents in Congress, as well as the unpredictability of California's politics, that the candidates who lead the pack in the races for governor and senator are unconventional politicians.

Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett Packard, is running for the GOP nomination in the Senate race and Meg Whitman, former chief executive of eBay, wants to be the Golden State's next Republican governor. Both women ran Fortune 500 companies, and both are structuring their campaigns around their presumed business acumen. Fiorina points to her rise in business as evidence she can succeed in or out of politics, and Whitman talks about how she has balanced hundreds of budgets. Both are also banking on California voters heading to the polls in November with a disdain for "politics as usual" that is so intense that a lack of experience in the public sector is an advantage rather than a liability.

The Democrats they would face in November, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who turns 70 in November, and Attorney General Jerry Brown, who turns 72 next month, are nothing if not career politicians.

As if to confirm that this political season is unlike any other, both Fiorina and Whitman are engaging in an epic ad battle with their opponents that is as bizarre as it is compelling. Taking advantage of now-ubiquitous Internet platforms, like YouTube and Facebook, both campaigns have churned out a series of sophisticated attack ads and videos that are low in cost but high in shock value.

The Fiorina camp ushered in this strange new era with two viral campaign spots that are seen by some political observers as pure genius -- and by others as completely bonkers. The first ad that took the Internet by storm is officially titled "FCINO: Fiscal Conservative In Name Only" targeting Tom Campbell, one of Fiorina's Republican primary challengers. The ad immediately took on the nickname "Demon Sheep" because it depicts Campbell as an evil sheep with glowing red eyes. That's right, the harshest attack ad so far has been run by Fiorina against another moderate Republican, a man widely considered smart and decent. Well, perhaps not anymore: As of this morning, the Fiorina ad had been viewed over 740,000 times.

The brains behind the video ad is Republican media consultant Fred Davis, who is known for another viral video: the Barack Obama "Celeb" ad. Since Davis' "Demon Sheep" ad began running, Fiorina's poll numbers have continued to climb, putting her at a statistical tie in polling match-ups with both Tom Campbell and Barbara Boxer.

Earlier this month, Fiorina teamed up with Davis to put out a second viral video, this time taking aim at Boxer. "Hot Air: The Movie" is almost eight minutes long and depicts Boxer (or rather, Boxer's head) as a crazy, giant blimp that is soaring above various settings in California and Washington, D.C. This image is interspersed with clips of Fiorina talking to the viewer about her background and arguing that Boxer hasn't accomplished much in her 18 years in office. The video ends with the Boxer blimp sputtering and crashing into the ocean.

"'Demon sheep' and the Barbara Boxer 'Hot Air' blimp films are economic plays," Davis told Politics Daily this weekend. " It's simply more economical to attract viewers to your message this way than it is to spend millions and millions and millions of dollars on TV like some other candidates are doing right now in California. And, in a time of economic distress [it] sends an odd message to spend so much so early. Our time will come, but think of what Carly's campaign will save in the meantime."

Whitman's campaign, meanwhile, has been on the receiving end, becoming the subject of another recent ad-gone-viral called "Meg-a-tar." The ad is financed by an independent political group backed by labor unions and supporters of Jerry Brown called Level the Playing Field 2010. The ad plays off the recent success of the movie "Avatar" in that it depicts Whitman as an animated, swollen-headed avatar of herself. In it, Whitman is introduced as a billionaire while casually flaunting how she had a private jet at eBay. The video is an attempt to portray Whitman as wealthy and out-of-touch at a time California's unemployment rate is stuck at 12.5 percent. It also makes her look like someone who is straightforwardly trying to purchase the governorship.

But Whitman has a big campaign war chest, and her monetary advantage clearly worries prominent Democrats, who noticed to their chagrin this week that they couldn't watch an NCAA tournament basketball game, "American Idol," or "The Biggest Loser" without seeing a Whitman ad. Some of those ads introduce Whitman to the public, while others takes swipes at Jerry Brown and her Republican Party primary opponent, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

"You can't swing a dead cat in California without hitting a Meg Whitman ad," says Sacramento political consultant Patrick Dorinson, a former aide to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "They're everywhere -- in every medium." Dorinson has wondered aloud if, at some point, the saturation of the airwaves won't wear voters out.

Poizner, who is far behind Whitman in the polls, certainly hopes so. Like Whitman, Steve Poizner is a fellow former Silicon Valley entrepreneur -- although he doesn't have her kind of money -- who is running to Whitman's right in the GOP primary.

Whitman has spent $46 million so far, most of it her own money, which is by far the most in a California primary, and she has said publicly she's willing to spend $150 million if that's what it takes.

Perhaps because he can't come close to matching Whitman's spending level, Poizner is trying to put the best face on it: He predicts it will backfire. "We're in the middle of a recession," he told a few dozen high tech types, mostly from Microsoft, at a recent forum. "To spend that kind of money right now is distasteful. What can I say?"

California has a reputation for being on the cutting edge of political trends, so are these the kind of ads that will determine competitive races? They have already done their job for now, because they have us talking.

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