CA Governor's Race Gets Ugly

04/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An e-mail in which an adviser to candidate Meg Whitman threatened to spend $40 million or more to ruin GOP rival Steve Poizner's reputation provided a rare glimpse Monday at the tough tactics in the high-stakes race for California governor.

Claiming he was being threatened in the contest to replace Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Poizner released a Jan. 27 e-mail from a Whitman strategist that said the former eBay chief executive was willing to spend the money "tearing up Steve if we must."

The e-mail begins: "Is there anything we can do to get SP to reconsider the race?" It goes on to suggest that Poizner should instead run for U.S. Senate against Democrat Dianne Feinstein in 2012.

"Could be a strong GOP year and DiFi will be 78 or 79 years old," said the e-mail from Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist who was a senior adviser in John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

"Thought I'd try one more time before it's 1914," it added.

Poizner said 1914 was a "not subtle" reference to the start of World War I. He said the offer to bow out of the governor's race in order to get party support for a later Senate campaign amounted to offering him a consolation prize.

Poizner asked the FBI, California attorney general's office and U.S. attorney's office to investigate whether the exchanges were illegal. He said the intimidation crosses the line from the normal rough-and-tumble of an election campaign to intimidation.

"She wants to be ordained. She wants to be the only one running so she doesn't have to answer your questions," Poizner told reporters.

Murphy later confirmed that he sent the e-mail and mocked Poizner's tone in a posting on Twitter, where he wrote, "Steve Poizner becoming unhinged, gave nutty press conf today. Wants FBI to lock me up."

Whitman, a billionaire, is the front-runner in the GOP primary against Poizner, a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. A Public Policy Institute of California poll last week found 41 percent of GOP voters backing Whitman and just 11 percent supporting Poizner, with 44 percent of likely primary voters still undecided.

Murphy said he sent the e-mail to Poizner pollster Jan van Lohuizen after hearing he may have "grave doubts about the viability of the faltering Poizner campaign."

"It is true that I have been trying to find a way to avoid a costly and unnecessary Republican primary," Murphy said in a statement released by Whitman's campaign officials. "Many Republican leaders are more and more concerned that the Poizner campaign, now 28+ points behind in the polls and still sinking, is becoming little more than a stalking horse for Jerry Brown and the Democrats."

Brown, the state attorney general and a former two-term governor, is the presumed Democratic nominee for governor, although he has not yet officially announced he is running.

Whitman was holding events Monday to promote her new book and did not respond to Poizner's claims.

Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the attorney general's office was reviewing Poizner's complaint.

The U.S. attorney's Office in Sacramento declined to comment on the letter, which it received Monday. Such allegations typically would be forwarded to the FBI, said spokeswoman Lauren Horwood. FBI spokesman Steve Dupre also declined comment.

Poizner also submitted his letter to the Fair Political Practices Commission, but Executive Director Roman Porter said none of the allegations appear to fall under the political reform act.

The allegations from Poizner come a few weeks after a third GOP challenger, former congressman Tom Campbell, pulled out of the governor's race to instead run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democrat Barbara Boxer.

Campbell spokesman James Fisfis said Campbell left the governor's race for only the reasons he stated – the difficulty of trying to match fundraising dollars with two wealthy Silicon Valley moguls and what he believes is a greater likelihood of success in the Senate race.

Poizner called his news conference the same day campaigns must file reports showing how much money they raised during the last six months of 2009. Those documents showed Whitman raised about $3.6 million from donors and gave $15 million of her own money to her campaign.

Poizner raised about $1.2 million and gave his campaign $15 million.