This is Part 2 of a three-part series on the 2014 California governor's race.
For an election expected to have very low turnout, the June 3rd primary could play an outsize role in shaping California’s political landscape. That’s because of the stark ideological battle shaping up in the Republican Party between gubernatorial candidates Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari.
The two couldn’t be more different. Donnelly’s an unapologetic tea party Assemblyman: “It’s the political power people against the people. And political parties, I could care less about. The political parties are the problem. It’s the people who are the solution.”
Kashkari’s an intense former U.S. Treasury official who’s fiscally conservative but socially moderate: “Clearly, what we’ve been doing has not been working. Clearly, we need a message that can bring many more voters into the Republican tent. And we need a vibrant two-party system in California.”
Both men want to take on Democratic Governor Jerry Brown in November and shape the California Republican Party’s brand – a party with less than 30 percent of registered voters.
Republican Cassandra Pye was Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy chief of staff. She says the Republican who takes on Brown must be inclusive.
“They need to talk about being supportive of women and women’s leadership, opportunities for people of color – because that’s who lives here. And there also needs to be a very, very serious focus on the next generation," says Pye.
Many establishment Republicans are scared about Donnelly advancing in June. He’s compared illegal immigration to war and was the only Assembly member to vote against a bill banning the state from selling the Confederate flag. And then there’s the controversy over his campaign accusing Kashkari of “submitting to Sharia law.”
Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff fears Donnelly could cost his party seats in the legislature – in a year the GOP hopes to eliminate Democrats’ supermajorities.
“So I’ve endorsed Neel Kashkari as a clear indicator that he represents more the ideals and the Republican values and frankly the mainstream values of the districts that my Republicans are running in," says Huff.
Many Democrats, meanwhile, would love to see Donnelly become the face of the California Republican Party. Many, but not all.
“I’m a liberal Democrat, but I’m a Californian,” says former Assemblyman Fred Keeley. He says it’s critical that Republicans nominate a credible candidate who can make the GOP relevant and moderate the Democrats in power.
“If there isn’t even a viable debate, then my concern is – the policy evolution on various issues incrementally, step by step, baby step by baby step, gets out of step with California," says Keeley.
But Kashkari had just two percent in a recent poll, despite a wide fundraising edge. Donnelly has polled as high as 17 percent, thanks in large part to his visceral connection with conservatives: "And that's why Tim Donnelly is going to be the next governor of California. Yeah!"
Sarah Thompson spoke at a recent Capitol rally for a Donnelly bill that would reverse the state’s two-year-old ban on using dogs to hunt bears and bobcats. She recalled when she first met the Assemblyman as that ban was becoming law, and Donnelly promised to overturn it.
“My heart hurt so bad. All of ours did," says Thompson. "But this man that I didn’t even know made a commitment to me and to all of us – and that’s when I saw it. The flame, the fire that we all have. I saw it in his eyes. And I believed him.”
John Briscoe with the conservative grassroots group California Republican Assembly says only Donnelly would give voters a real choice in November “between a real conservative and a real liberal – as opposed to a Republican that’s not totally conservative."
Briscoe points out Kashkari ran the federal government’s bank bailout program known as “TARP” and voted for President Obama in 2008. “And then it’s like, well, they’re both the same, so we might as well vote for Brown," he says.
In the end, it’s widely assumed that most Californians will vote for Brown. But the Republican who finishes second in June could also shape the state’s future.
Part 3 of this series will look at how many California progressives are frustrated with Democratic Governor Jerry Brown. Read the first story in the series about Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly.