Voter Skepticism of Big Moneyed Interests Could Play Role in Fall Campaign

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SACRAMENTO, CA — The big smackdown of big money in Tuesday’s primary might have big implications for the fall.

The same level of skepticism that voters
showed in rejecting lavish, multimillion dollar messages of two
corporate-backed ballot measures could doom campaigns that hope that
money alone will buy an election in the fall, political observers said.

voters in a handful of Democratic legislative primaries also rejected
candidates backed by the insurance and oil industries, signaling an
anti-corporate mood that may spur Democrats as they face two wealthy
ex-CEOs at the top of the Republican ticket.

"This has been an
election drenched in money," said Thad Kousser, a visiting political
science professor at the Hoover Institution. "There were lots of things
that showed the limits of money in politics, nothing more than props 16
and 17."

Propositions 16 and 17 were measures backed by PG&E
and Mercury Insurance, respectively, in which they combined to spend $62
million against woefully underfunded opponents — and lost.

the case of PG&E, spending $46 million to pass a "self-serving
initiative at a time when they are asking for a $1.1 billion rate
increase was too much for voters," said Larry Gerston, political-science
professor at San Jose State University.

"Any time interest groups
are spurned, it really does show that the public is not about to roll
over because a lot of money is spent," Gerston added.

groups hailed the victories of Democratic candidates over industry-backed opponents
in five primary contests, saying that voters reacted unfavorably once
they found out that big money was behind the flurry of campaign mailers
reaching their doorstep.

In the race to succeed Assemblyman Alberto
Torrico, D-Fremont, for example, a candidate with the backing of
insurance companies, Garrett Yee, fell in defeat to Bob Wieckowski, who
had the support of more traditional Democratic backers, labor and trial

"Right now in California, having the support of oil and
insurance companies is the kiss of death in a Democratic primary," said
Niall McCarthy, a vice president and political chairman of Consumer
Attorneys of California. "Voters have had five to six years of watching
undeterred greed in the business community, and now their corporate
decisions are coming back to haunt them at the ballot box."

Sorich, the president of the Association of California Insurance
Companies, disagreed, saying people should not read too broadly into the

"I don’t think there’s a basis to make a general
conclusion that voters are opposed to anything business might support,"
he said. "It’s just as incorrect to say that people in favor of previous
initiatives backed by business that passed supported it just because
they were put on the ballot by business."

Consumer groups are
already gearing up for a bruising battle over an initiative, backed by
large oil companies, that would suspend Assembly Bill 32, the state’s
emissions regulations law scheduled to take effect next year.

Democrats have for weeks been painting Meg Whitman, the billionaire
Republican gubernatorial nominee and former CEO of eBay, as a creature
of the culture of greed and excess.

"There is an anti-corporate
sentiment out there, and I do think it’s not helpful for Whitman to be
identified with the corporate culture, certainly in the general
election," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, political analyst at the
University of Southern California.

Whitman spent $71 million of
her personal wealth in the primary alone to defeat GOP opponent Steve
Poizner and has promised to spend $150 million to win, and could easily
exceed that total in what is expected to be a brutal race with Democrat
Jerry Brown.

"Whitman is going to see a backlash if she doesn’t
watch how she spends her money," Gerston said. "As time goes on this
kind of spending begins to weigh on people. It bought her legitimacy in
the campaign, but if that kind of spending continues at that outrageous
rate, say another $100 million, the question becomes is she doing it to
be known or is she trying to buy the election?"

Republicans say
that Brown’s accusations against Whitman’s excessive spending will
resonate less because he will have big-bucks backing of labor, though
they’re unlikely to come close to matching Whitman’s spending.

the lesson from the primary is clear, said Tom Del Baccaro, vice
chairman of the state Republican party: Candidates and initiative
campaigns can’t appear self-serving.

"This campaign showed that
just throwing a lot of money at today’s electorate isn’t enough," said
Del Baccaro, a former chairman of the Contra Costa County GOP. "The
voters’ ability to get information through the Internet and other
sources makes this a more sophisticated electorate."

Voters had to
work hard to sift through the "obfuscation" and "deception" employed by
PG&E and Mercury Insurance, said Doug Heller, executive director of
Consumer Watchdog, whose political action committee ran the opposition
campaign to Prop. 17.

"They had to resist an all-out attack by
special interests," Heller said, "and they managed to go to the
newspapers and blogs and editorial boards and pick through the rubbish."

be a lot more rubbish to pick through over the next five months.

Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101.

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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