Here’s a “get your popcorn” moment. Meg Whitman is trying to buy the Governor’s race in California, but before she moves on to the general election, she has to get out of the primary. Tom Campbell, who had been running in that race, dropped out to try for a run at the US Senate, but Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner remains. And he surprised some people today with a press conference where he alleged that Whitman tried to push him out of the race.

Republican candidate for governor Steve Poizner today revealed intimidation tactics from Meg Whitman in which her top political advisor threatened to spend $40 million “tearing up” Commissioner Poizner. Last week, Meg Whitman’s trusted advisor Mike Murphy contacted multiple people connected to the Poizner campaign and attempted to intimidate Poizner out of the race. In return for dropping out, Meg Whitman offered to deliver to Commissioner Poizner the Republican nomination for the 2012 U.S. Senate race against Dianne Feinstein.

Poizner produced one of these letters today. In it, Mike Murphy, a well-known Republican strategist, asks a senior Poizner consultant, “Is there anything we can do to get SP to reconsider this race? … I hate the idea of us each spending $20 million beating on the other in a primary, only to have a damaged nominee. And we can spend $40M+ tearing up Steve if we must; bad for him, bad for us, and a crazy waste to tear up a guy with great potential – really the only guy on the CA GOP bench for the future.” Later in the email, Murphy implicitly promises to deliver Poizner the nomination for the US Senate race in 2012 against Dianne Feinstein.

Murphy closes the email by saying he wanted to “try one more time before it’s 1914,” a reference to World War I. Poizner Communications Director Jarrod Agen said in a statement, “This pattern of intimidation has unfolded like an episode from the Sopranos television show. First they ask you nicely to do their bidding. When you refuse, they go to mutual friends to convince you of the errors of your ways and offer you rewards if you do as they say. If you still refuse, they threaten to tear you up.”

Poizner sent a letter to the FBI, the local US Attorney’s Office, the Secretary of State, and Attorney General Jerry Brown, ironically the likely Democratic candidate for Governor, calling for an investigation into Whitman’s intimidation tactics. In it, he alleges that this conduct “runs directly counter to the spirit of the Code of Fair Campaign Practices” in the California elections code.

I’m fairly confident that this type of conduct happens all the time in election campaigns, with one side trying to push the other out and avoid a primary. We’ve seen such encouragement in plenty of other races this year. What we did not have was smoking-gun evidence like this email. I don’t know if anyone will run with it, but it looks very damaging for Whitman, really the only way that Poizner can win against all that money, since he’s 30 points down in the polls. Poizner started WWI a bit early, it seems.

Again, pass the popcorn.

UPDATE: Mike Murphy, who was initially almost hired by the Poizner campaign, responds: “After reading the ridiculous charges made by Steve Poizner during today’s strange press conference, all I can say is that I’m starting to worry about the Commissioner’s mental condition.” But he doesn’t deny and in fact actively agrees with the charge that he tried to get Poizner out of the race.

David Dayen

David Dayen

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