Poizner overhauls political shop to stave off Whitman moves

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this story indicated Mike Spence has endorsed Poizner. Spence in fact has not endorsed either candidate in the race.

Though the Republican gubernatorial primary is almost a year away, Steve Poizner has overhauled his campaign operation, dismissing a number of Sacramento insiders and replacing them with new, full-time staff.

Discussions with nearly a dozen current and former Poizner staffers paint a portrait of a campaign in transition, led by a demanding candidate who has opted to run a leaner campaign while trying to withstand a burst of early momentum from primary challenger Meg Whitman.

Whitman’s campaign has been boosted by absorbing much of the campaign team of former Gov. Pete Wilson. Her lead consultant, Jeff Randle, was a Wilson adviser, and Wilson himself is serving as chairman of Whitman’s campaign.

Over the last month, Whitman has solidified her fundraising advantage over Poizner – though both candidates are multi-millionaires and are expected to self-fund the majority of their campaigns – and peeled off legislative and Congressional endorsements from officials who had previously backed Poizner.

Last month, Poizner announced the hiring of three new full-time campaign staffers. The full-time staff, many of whom lack deep California experience, have replaced a number of names familiar to California insiders who have been advising Poizner on a part-time basis.

“What we’re going through now is a natural evolution in the campaign,” said campaign manager Jim Bognet, a veteran of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 reelection campaign and Mitt Romney’s presidential race. “We’ve gone to a full-time staff model early on, and that’s just a function of the campaign season getting longer.”

Bognet is the campaign’s third campaign manager. Brian Seitchik held the title for a time. So did Sacramento political consultant Matt Rexroad, who ran Poizner’s failed 2004 Assembly bid. Rexroad has also left the campaign.

Fundraiser and political consultant Marty Wilson has ended his affiliation with the Poizner camp, as has Sacramento consultant Wayne Johnson, who oversaw Poizner’s 2006 race for insurance commissioner. Communications guru Kevin Spillane is taking an assignment as consultant to the Assembly Republican Caucus, and will continue on in a diminished role with Jarrod Agen coming on as communications director.

“Adjustments were made based on the kind of race that Steve thinks he’s going to be running,” said Johnson, who like others who left the campaign said they did so primarily because they had other clients and could not commit to working for Poizner full-time. “I think that model is leaner, it’s probably easier to maintain focus with that kind of campaign structure. There are some real advantages to it. It would be a mistake to second-guess all those decisions.”

Privately, those who know Poizner paint a picture of a hard-driving boss who can be difficult to work for. He has a reputation for micro-managing his campaigns and being highly competitive. He is a wonk, delving deep into the minutiae of the workings of public policy – something that Bognet attributes to Poizner’s background as an engineer.

When fundraising totals are released later this month, Poizner will find himself in a position he is unaccustomed to. Though final numbers will not be known until reports are officially released, the latest numbers from the Secretary of State’s Web site show Whitman with a large fundraising advantage. Poizner has contributed $4.2 million to his own campaign, and has raised $1.2 million from other sources, records show.

Whitman has chipped in $4 million to her campaign, and has raised another $3.8 million from other donors, including well-known GOP givers like Jerry Perenchio, Donald Bren and Timothy Draper.

The big unknown is how much money each candidate will still have in the bank when the reports are released. Whitman’s campaign has spent heavily on political consultants and fundraising in recent months, and her detractors draw comparisons to Democrat Terry Mac Aulitte’s campaign for Virginia governor which had vast resources, but underestimated primary challengers who had stronger grass roots support.

While nobody is declaring Poizner’s campaign dead, disadvantages in fundraising and massive staff turnover have led some in Sacramento to begin to wonder if the Poizner campaign is stalled. But others caution there is a long time before the June 2010 primary, and that Poizner is a tenacious and hard-working campaigner who should not be underestimated.

Since his election in 2006, Poizner has actively courted the Republican activists that are so influential in Republican primary races. Though he, like Whitman, has a  history of political centrism, Poizner has worked hard to assuage conservatives’ fears.

Poizner touts the endorsement of nine former Republican Party state chairman, and well-known conservatives.

“The activists are extremely important,” says Jon Fleischman, a regional vice-chairman of the California Republican Party who is not affiliated with either campaign. “Those major Republican organizations give you bona fides. To the extent that you’re able to get endorsements from those activists and those organizations, it’s very valuable” in a Republican primary.  

Poizner’s campaign points to the campaign of Richard Riordan in 2002. Riordan had a number of high-profile endorsements, but did not cultivate the conservative Republican base. Riordan wound up losing a primary to conservative Bill Simon.

“Much of the statewide activist network that was in place for Simon is the network for Steve,” says Fleischman.

And like Riordan, they say, Republican voters may not like what they see when they get a closer look at Whitman.

Whitman has said she only registered as a Republican in 2007, so that she could vote for her friend and supporter, Mitt Romney, in the 2008 presidential primary. She did not vote in the 2003 recall election or in the 2005 special election.

Poizner has some things in his past that will not sit well with conservatives – he supported lowering the local vote threshold to raise taxes in 2004, and gave money to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 – but Poizner has worked hard to assuage those fears in meetings with conservative activists.  

Poizner is plotting a series of policy speeches over the next several months. But some supporters worry his political operation is not where it should be. Bognet, like many others on Poizner’s staff, has a strong policy background, a natural Poizner strength, but the job of political director remains unfilled. Poizner still receives council from Jim Brulte, his campaign chairman and one of the party’s most savvy political operators.

“A lot of this is inside baseball,” Bognet said. “The reality is, we’re a year out from the primary, and our operation is way ahead of where political campaigns typically are at this stage.”

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