Sunday, September 21st, 2014

For a state in a mess, a messy campaign

Steve Poizner's "Vulture" ad against Meg Whitman gets visceral -- literally

The ad wars in the Republican primary for governor of California have turned nasty, so we thought it was time for some fact-checking.

This week we'll analyze several ads by and about the two leading Republican contenders to succeed California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The primary contest could be pivotal because the Golden State has been tarnished by a severe budget crisis and frequent political paralysis.

The two main Republicans are Meg Whitman, the former CEO of the online auction site eBay, and Steve Poizner, a fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was later elected to the statewide office of insurance commissioner.

California as a whole may have shown a preference for Democrats in recent election cycles, but the Republican base is staunchly conservative -- so much so that party regulars have all but disowned their own party's governor, Schwarzenegger, for being too liberal. So Whitman and Poizner -- who many observers had long pegged as moderate -- have gone out of their way to highlight their conservative credentials. The fact that both worked in the high-tech industry, which has often had friendly ties to Democrats, has only increased the vigor of their attacks.

Both candidates have deep pockets, which has enabled them to spend freely on the airwaves in the nation's most populous state. Poizner has run an ad accusing Whitman of investing in "vulture funds" that profit from homeowner misery, illustrated by video footage of an actual vulture ripping flesh from a carcass. Whitman ads, meanwhile, have used a "Steve Shuffle" jingle that includes the line "Flip and flop is the name of his game and if we trust we'd be insane." (An independent group, Level the Playing Field, chimed in with a video featuring a grotesque animated avatar of Whitman bragging about her private plane.)

Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown -- the shoo-in for his party's gubernatorial nomination -- has cheerfully kept his powder dry.

"I picture the Brown campaign watching Poizner and Whitman's scramble to appear righter-than-thou and thanking the campaign gods for the bounty," said Kimberly Nalder, a government professor at California State University-Sacramento.

"Both are essentially political moderates who are (a) cherry-picking more conservative parts of their records to make themselves seem more acceptable to right-wing GOP primary voters, and/or (b) grossly mischaracterizing the other one to make her or him seem like a flaming liberal," said veteran California Democratic strategist Garry South.

Here are the statements we're checking. We'll add more as we publish.

• A Whitman ad charged that Poizner "gave $10,000 to Al Gore's recount" effort in 2000. There's documentation of the donation, but Poizner counters that his wife made the donation, and it came from of a joint checking account. We find that the explanation is possible, but the fact that he signed the check officially makes the donation his, and the listing of his employer, rather than his wife's, on the disclosure form provides additional evidence that he was the intended donor. We rate the claim Mostly True.

• A Poizner ad charged that "taxpayer-funded benefits" for illegal immigrants in California are "a skyrocketing cost under Obamacare." The Poizner campaign said that the increase would come from an expansion of Medicaid provided by the new health care law, which would indirectly expand the health care burden on the state. But experts told us that any new illegal immigrants brought under Medicaid in California will not cost the state or its localities any more than they are already spending to cover those patients under existing state and federal law. We concluded that it's not accurate for the Poizner campaign to blame any rise in costs -- if there is one -- either on the new federal health care law or on the Democratic president who pushed for it. So we rated the statement False.

• A Poizner ad argued that Whitman "contributed to, and campaigned, for" Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer -- a serious failing to those in the GOP primary electorate, who view the liberal Boxer as an ideological nemesis. We found that she definitely donated to Boxer and also signed a group letter supporting her reelection, but we downgraded the claim slightly because it was not clear to us that what she did constitutes what a reasonable person might call "campaigning." So we rated Poizner's claim Mostly True.

• A Whitman ad repeats a recurring theme in numerous ads -- that Poizner presided over a big increase in the insurance department budget. The implication was that his fiscal skills aren't up to the task of easing the state's deep budget crisis. But while there are many credible ways to make the computation in question, it is clear to us is that no plausible calculation approaches the 14 percent figure Whitman has repeatedly cited. So we ruled her claim False.