06/13/2010 02:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's at Stake in the Golden State? Corporate Cash vs. Progressive Populism

California voters face a clash between corporate cash vs. progressive populism. Nothing less than the biggest statehouse, the biggest Senate seat, and the future presidency of America is at stake here in the Golden State.

Corporate cash vs. progressive populism

Can corporate cash always beat progressive populism? Absolutely not - but it will be spent at historic levels over the next five months. Corporate cash funded the nominations of Meg Whitman (R-eBay) for governor and Carly Fiorina (R-Hewlett Packard) for senator.

But, corporate cash lost to progressive populists who defeated Prop 16 (utility PG&E spent $45 million to LOSE a public power grab,0,6055763.story) and Prop 17 (Mercury Insurance spent over $15 million to LOSE a rate hike measure,0,6749863.story)

One element from NO on 16 and 17 - the money is the message - for good and for ill. When a candidate or a company brandishes wealth during a recession, big spenders risk voter backlash.

Whitman vs. Brown for Governor

Republican and Independent women are excited about Meg Whitman -- she beat men to rise to the top of eBay corporation and she beat a well-known conservative in Steve Poizner to win the nomination. She spent over $80 million -- 70 dollars per vote -- and thus far has outspent Jerry Brown 200 to 1. Whitman did move to the far right on immigration which will hurt her with Latinos and moderates in the general. Jerry Brown is a party of one more like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who says he's not endorsing) so don't expect to pigeonhole him. He was a good mayor, a law and order leader with a military school in liberal Oakland -- and has been an activist Attorney General.

Whitman wants to make Brown out to have been a big spender but older voters -- the stars of midterm elections -- remember the blue Plymouth instead of the Reagan town car, the mattress on the floor instead of the governor's mansion, and his reputation as a cheapskate. Brown flubbed with his Goebbels gaffe -- but some of Whitman's people responded in kind attacking him as the real minister of propaganda -- hopefully they will all stop the Nazi references! Really, people, I can think of 6 million reasons why this Nazi analogy has to stop. Meg Whitman will be on air nonstop talking at voters but they can't see her debate till October 11th -- the earliest date she OKed -- when absentee ballots are already out for early voting. I expect that to change, as voters demand more interactivity and accountability.

Fiorina vs. Boxer for Senator

Carly Fiorina has her HP golden Parachute to fund a race against Barbara Boxer. She won the Palin primary against tea party favorite Chuck DeVore, who pushed her to the far right on immigration. Fiorina is anti gay marriage in a gay rights state, pro life in a pro choice state, and won't fund abortions under any circumstances including rape and incest.

Fiorina began badly with her snarky Boxer hairstyle/Whitman on Hannity comments. She apologized to Whitman -- not Boxer -- and has now got to make up lost ground with voters who wonder why the head of a tech company can't handle a hot mike, and with women voters who don't want her mean girls cattiness to reflect upon us.

But it's not about the hair or the Hannity -- it's about the jobs. Boxer will defend the Recovery Act aid to California, explain how jobs investments have helped make progress in people's lives, and campaign hard in the Central Valley where swing voters thrive. Fiorina will have to explain why she was outsourcing jobs as CEO of HP before she was fired by the board.

Boxer has long championed our California coast. For a while, political reporters would tell me "so what? Environmental issues don't win independent voters" but now that BP has spewed ecological, economic, and emotional disaster in the gulf coast, Boxer's longtime stance against drilling off the California coast has the edge, especially along the Santa Barbara coastline where Tranquillion Ridge has been a target for drilling. We'll see if Palin returns to California chanting "drill baby drill" with Fiorina anytime soon.

GOP vs. Obama for President

Long the ATM and brain trust of national politics, California is always host to national Democratic and Republican all-stars. This year, the stakes are enormous: we are looking at a battle for the direction of California and the 2012 Presidential race. President Obama has been out here twice for Barbara Boxer and could return if need be.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney helped Meg Whitman and Sarah Palin helped Carly Fiorina. If Whitman or Fiorina should happen to win -- and I concede neither -- Romney or Palin would have a feather in their cap and a potential rival or slatemate for 2012, since victory in America's largest state would instantly catapult Whitman or Fiorina into the GOP VP sweepstakes. But we are a long way from there... Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer still lead in the polls.

What does all this mean for the November elections?

California is a blue state but we need a strong grass roots effort to win. Why? The June turnout was quite low according to our field poll and will remain so unless voters have a compelling reason to come out. What Democrats need is to build on the No on Prop 16 and 17 victories and engage the voters.

Democrats must make the election a choice between which candidates help us achieve the California dream and open doors of opportunity and prosperity to all, and which will insist on corporatist policies that merely trickle down to Main Street. We need an interactive debate on jobs, healthcare, education, immigration, water, land use, and civil rights. Our standard bearers must be clear in their policies and their politics so that voters can cut through the multi-million dollar ad clutter.

I don't think the answers will be on the air -- I think they'll be on the ground, when people go door to door and look eyeball to eyeball with voters to make the case for a better California. This will require a cultural change in Democratic politics -- the admen (and yes they're mostly men) will want their slick mailers and TV spots (and 15-18% consulting fees) to carry the day - so the progressive populists have to fight for every inch of ground intend to cover within the Democratic party and within the State of California.