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How Meg Whitman spent a fortune -- and lost

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
Meg Whitman, the former Ebay CEO who ran as a Republican, spent $140 million of her money on the California governor's race.
Meg Whitman, the former Ebay CEO who ran as a Republican, spent $140 million of her money on the California governor's race.
  • On a good night for Republicans, Democrats did well in California, Ruben Navarrette Jr. says
  • Meg Whitman spent $140 million of her money in losing bid to defeat Jerry Brown, he says
  • Navarrette says Whitman never connected with voters in the state
  • He says her employment of illegal immigrant housekeeper doomed her candidacy

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist, an NPR commentator and a regular contributor to

San Diego, California (CNN) -- On a day that millions of Americans in other parts of the country turned the electoral map red by electing a sea of Republicans, California voters stayed true blue and kept doing what they usually do on Election Day -- elect Democrats.

And, in a year where a lot of voters wanted to throw the bums out and get rid of career politicians, Californians -- in the headliner contests -- rejected a pair of wealthy and former Silicon Valley CEOs in favor of a couple of longtime politicians and party insiders who, between them, have spent more than a half century (58 years) in political office.

The rest of the country was experiencing a revolution. In California, it was more like a "retro-lution." Familiarity did not necessarily breed contempt. In fact, it helped put a couple of high-profile victories in the Democratic column.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who has been cashing government checks for 34 years -- as a county supervisor, member of the House of Representatives and U.S. senator -- narrowly defeated her Republican opponent, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who electrified the GOP base.

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Meanwhile, Democrat Jerry Brown -- a former governor who has spent 24 years in politics serving as everything from a community college trustee to mayor of Oakland to attorney general -- beat his Republican opponent, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, more handily.

The California governor's race was always Whitman's to lose. And, sure enough, she lost it -- in spectacular fashion. At the beginning, Whitman had at least five things working in her favor. She was battle-tested thanks to a tough primary with a Republican challenger. She had an enormous amount of personal wealth, enough to allow her to spend a whopping $140 million of her own money on the quixotic bid to become chief executive of the Golden State.

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She was running against a candidate who had taken all sides of so many issues that it wasn't clear which parts of the Democratic base he could count on for support. She was running in a year when, in most places, the Democratic brand was wildly unpopular. And speaking of brands, she was affiliated with one -- eBay -- that is generally well-respected and elicits a positive response from the public.

So then why did Whitman lose? For one thing, she never connected with voters and that hurt her when the Brown campaign started pushing the message that she was this rich empress who lived in a bubble and couldn't relate to average Californians. For another, she never proved she was up to the job of being governor of the nation's most populous state. Then there was the fact that the unions really delivered for Brown, especially in terms of direct mail -- in both English and Spanish.

In fact, you can't overstate how strategically important it was for the Brown campaign to have so effectively locked up the Latino vote -- by hook or by crook. Some of what happened was truly underhanded.

For instance, during the campaign, the California Democratic Party put out a Spanish-language mailer telling Latino voters to vote for Brown for governor because his Republican opponent, Whitman, would keep Latino students out of state colleges and universities.

That's not so. Whitman said that she would bar illegal immigrants from state colleges and universities. Someone ought to tell California Democrats that "Latino" and "illegal immigrant" are not synonymous.

In any case, when you have that many assets in your arsenal, your opponent can't defeat you until you give him an opening. And Whitman's gift to the Brown campaign was Nicky Diaz Santillan. Just about six weeks ago, the candidates were tied in the polls, and Whitman was busy trying to market herself as a new kind of Republican -- you might say, a kinder and gentler one to borrow a phrase.

But when the news broke that Whitman had, for nearly 10 years, employed an illegal immigrant housekeeper, one whom she just happened to fire before running for governor, voters got a glimpse at a different Whitman. Suddenly, she seemed heartless and mean. When Santillan insisted that Whitman had shouted at her, "You don't know me, and I don't know you" -- a lot of Californians believed her. What they found harder to believe was that Whitman had no idea that Santillan was in the country illegally.

The housekeeper story opened Whitman up like a peanut to questions about her integrity, empathy and honesty. And before it was over, a $140 million personal investment would tank because of a Mexican maid who supposedly earned $23 per hour.

That's how we roll in California, the land of second chances and celebrity makeovers, where anyone can be forgiven for wanting a reality show but where reality can be awfully unforgiving.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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