No candidate campaigned harder this spring that Neel Kashkari, the former federal Treasury Department official and ex-Goldman Sachs executive who just become the first Asian-American ever nominated for governor of California.
He was someplace every day. His campaign issued a seemingly nonstop barrage of press releases. He willingly met with political reporters, who took him seriously even when he was at 2 percent in the polls.
Kashkari also won the endorsements of every prominent Republican who took sides in this month’s primary election. These included ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney (now a La Jolla resident), possible GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush and Rep. Darrell Issa of northern San Diego County, chairman of the House Governmental Oversight Committee. Ex-President George W. Bush made fundraising calls for him. There are no bigger GOP guns.
But Kashkari’s campaign was so cash-starved that during the month before the vote, the candidate who once said he couldn’t fund his own campaign because his net worth was “only” about $5 million felt he had to put up $2 million of his own cash (by his reckoning, about 40 percent of all his resources).
This was still barely enough to put Kashkari into the November runoff election, beating out primary opponent Tim Donnelly, an assemblyman from the High Desert town of Twin Peaks best known for attempting to carry a handgun onto a Southwest Airlines flight at Ontario International Airport two years ago. Before that, the tea party favorite’s main claim to fame was being a co-founder of the Minutemen group battling illegal immigration. Imagine what that might have done to the Latino vote.
Donnelly’s campaign manager, Jennifer Kerns, quit in mid-March, amid reports the candidate consistently refused to take her advice. He compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler and groundlessly accused Kashkari of promoting Islamic Sharia law. Yet, somehow, Donnelly almost managed to make the runoff, primarily because much of the Republican Party’s California base believed he was the only purely anti-government candidate available.
Kashkari’s win meant that the Republican establishment beat back the grass-roots GOP right this spring. In a contest that drew very few Democratic voters, Kashkari’s last-minute spending inspired just enough moderate Republican voters to back him. Many apparently feared having Donnelly top their ticket would drag down dozens of other Republicans in swing districts, while Kashkari might be a neutral factor.
As of early May, just more than two weeks before the first absentee ballots went to voters, Kashkari had barely run any commercials. So he was undefined to most voters before his last-week ad campaign, even as Donnelly tried to tag him a purely establishment hack.
But at least Kashkari is a real candidate. While Donnelly railed vaguely against big government, Kashkari issued detailed position papers on job creation and education.
Kashkari’s primary win over Donnelly at least indicates the GOP does not have a total death wish, as it avoided nominating a candidate who could alienate even more voters than the California GOP already has. But in a very lightly voted election, with Democrats having little at stake in most places, Brown still managed to win a large majority over both Republicans combined.
It’s possible Kashkari will make inroads into that cushion by the fall, for he’s promised that if elected, he will frequently compromise with Democrats who dominate the Legislature.
The vote also might indicate GOP feelings against illegal immigration have eased a bit, as the party nominated the son of immigrants while rejecting a leader of the vigilante-like Minutemen.
The bottom line is that after flirting with a potentially deep electoral disaster, just enough GOP voters realized that their party would be a dead duck on many levels if it sent Donnelly against Brown, whose job approval ratings in polls this spring were well over 50 percent.
All of which probably means Brown, sitting on a campaign war chest of more than $21 million, will still have a clear path this fall, but the GOP likely will at least avoid a Democratic clean sweep of every competitive race in the state, which Donnelly could have made a distinct possibility.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.