UC Berkeley's regular post-election conference is under way at the Hotel Shattuck Plaza, and the clear theme of the first session, which analyzed the gubernatorial primary -- billionaire Republican candidate Meg Whitman's money.
In the thick of the primary race, both Democratic candidate Jerry Brown and Republican Steve Poizner based many of their political calculations on how to counter Whitman's threat to spend up to $150 million of her own money on the race. She ended up spending more than $140 million.
Poizner strategist Jim Bognet said that money allowed Whitman to rebound after Poizner pummeled her with ads attacking her immigration positions and her ties to the investment bank Goldman Sachs. Whitman's monster lead over Poizner, which widened to around 50 percentage points at one point, shrank to single digits, according to some polls.
Whitman spent $15 million on direct mail criticizing Poizner compared to the $400,000 Poizner spent on mail, Bognet said. Poizner ultimately burned through about $25 million of his own money.
"We were taking punches left and right, on the radio, from September, on TV, from February," Bognet said. "We really couldn't punch back. When we did punch back on character and on immigration where there was differentiation, she didn't take the punch very well for six weeks. She then kind of rebooted her campaign with a new message."
The result: Poizner losing the nomination to Whitman by more than 30 percentage points.
Whitman's campaign declined to send anyone to the conference, the first time a major candidate hasn't sent a representative to the event since it began in 1990, said Ethan Rarick, director of the Center on Politics at UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies.
Former California Republican Party Chairman Duf Sundheim shared some of his insights into what was happening inside the Whitman campaign.
One nugget: Whitman tacked right on immigration during the primary aware that it would hurt her in the general election. Nonetheless, her campaign was genuinely concerned at one point that she would lose the GOP nomination to Poizner, he said.
Brown campaign manager Steve Glazer said he had expected Whitman to start running ads against the Democrat during the primary season.
"I expected that all the way through until primary day, and I was very surprised that it never happened," Glazer said
Ultimately, Whitman's heavy ad rotation turned off voters, explaining her general election loss to Brown, Bognet said.
"Her brand was: She's the woman with all the money who won't get off my TV," Bognet said.
Peter Ragone, who represented Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom, beat back characterizations that Newsom's Achilles heel was his dislike of fundraising.
He pointed out that Newsom raised $8.1 million in his campaign for governor and then, after dropping out of the gubernatorial race, for lieutenant governor.
"The truth of the matter is the Brown campaign did a great job in how they approached the primary," Ragone said. "Voters at the time were supporting Jerry Brown. They'd known him, they had good feelings about him."
Republican candidate Tom Campbell switched from the governor's race to the U.S. Senate race in January 2010 after watching Whitman spend millions of dollars on advertising nearly a year before Election Day, said former Campbell spokesman Jamie Fisfis.
"He just couldn't conceive that he had to raise the money," Fisfis said of Campbell.
The event, which draws political academics and journalists from all over the state, is known for its more irreverent moments, in which former rivals share battlefield strategy and jokes.
Glazer won the biggest laugh of the first session when he was asked if there was one thing he would have done differently in the primary campaign.
After a beat, he responded, "Telephone operational training."
That referred to a Brown stumble in the general election campaign, in which he failed to hang up his phone properly and let a voice mail record a campaign aide suggest calling Whitman a "whore."
The Poizner camp, represented by Bognet and press aide Jarrod Agen, sounded at times like it was still in campaign mode. The pair trashed Whitman's sparse voting record, her supposed flip-flops on policy and her heavily controlled media policy.
"They told her to have contempt for the process," Bognet said of Whitman's consultants.
With no one from Whitman's campaign there to defend her, the slams against her campaign rolled on all afternoon.