- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2010

LOS ANGELES | Six-figure donations are rolling in, radio and online ads are running, and researchers are digging for dirt on Meg Whitman, the leading Republican candidate for California governor.

This isn’t a look inside Democrat Jerry Brown’s campaign. Mr. Brown, a former two-term governor running for a third term in Sacramento in November, is not in charge or technically even involved in the operations.

The effort is the work of independent Democratic-linked groups that essentially are acting as surrogate campaigns for Mr. Brown at a time when he faces a huge fundraising disadvantage against Mrs. Whitman. Mrs. Whitman, the billionaire former chief executive of eBay, intends to spend more money on the race than any candidate for governor in U.S. history.

The political operations are prohibited by law from coordinating with candidates, but they are free to spend as much money as they want on a politician’s behalf. In fact, the Democratic groups could end up raising and spending more money than Mr. Brown himself, a first in a California governor’s race.

The movement is reshaping the way elections are waged in trend-setting California while offering a glimpse into America’s future after the Supreme Court in January gave corporations and unions new freedom to spend on many campaigns.

In recent years, California has seen a surge in spending by Indian tribes, companies and labor groups trying to elect friendly candidates to the legislature, sometimes in amounts that dwarf spending by candidate campaigns.

“Campaigns, particularly for governor and U.S. Senate, are not going to get waged between candidate A and candidate B,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based Democratic consultant with decades of experience in state and national politics. “There will be all these satellite, independent campaigns that might have a more profound effect on the campaign than the candidates.”

The group began targeting Mrs. Whitman long before Mr. Brown, now California’s state attorney general, had even officially announced his candidacy. The Republican candidate’s campaign is calling for an investigation of one of the groups because it thinks the group is breaking the law.

The new political order is being shaped largely by Mrs. Whitman’s presence. She already has poured at least $39 million of her fortune into the race and could spend an unprecedented $150 million by November.

Mr. Brown has about $12 million in the bank. Democratic operatives say he could raise $45 million - but only if every person who has donated to a Democratic candidate for governor in recent elections gave him $25,900, the maximum allowable donation for the 2010 race.

Mrs. Whitman’s rival in the GOP primary, Steve Poizner, is another wealthy scion of Silicon Valley who could spend tens of millions of dollars on his race.

For Democrats, these fortunes have rekindled haunting memories of 2006, when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger used a commanding edge in fundraising to seize control of his re-election race.

Unlike candidate campaigns, the outside groups could bank six- or seven-figure donations from wealthy individuals, unions or sympathetic organizations. One is linked to supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle, a major Democratic donor and longtime friend of former President Clinton’s.

Mr. Brown’s political committees have been in virtual hibernation for months except for fundraising. Meanwhile, independent groups have taken on many of the functions of a campaign, except for the name.

Level the Playing Field 2010, for example, has hired a professional researcher to plumb Mrs. Whitman’s business records. It is running ads on radio, while Mr. Brown has not. Its Web site features postings and videos with headlines such as “Meg Whitman’s Fake Town Hall.”

The backbone of the group includes Chris Lehane, a strategist whose parents were involved in Mr. Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign; Ace Smith, a strategist who ran his campaign to be attorney general; pollster Paul Maslin, whose firm handled polling for Mr. Brown’s attorney-general race; and fundraiser Michelle Maravich.

Mr. Brown “is going to have to husband his resources and focus them on the later stages of the campaign,” Mr. Lehane said. Level the Playing Field is “trying to fill that space.”

Republican lawyers say Level the Playing Field and other pro-Democratic organizations might be working furtively with Mr. Brown’s campaign, violating election law, and have called for a state investigation.

“There is no doubt these are front groups for Jerry Brown,” Whitman spokeswoman Sarah Pompei said. “They are going to be doing his dirty work.”

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