California voters are paying little attention to the state’s gubernatorial race, in which incumbent Democrat Gov. Jerry Brown, who enjoys 20-point leads over Republican rival Neel Kashkari, has barely campaigned at all. The two will meet for their first–and apparently only–debate later this week in Sacramento, just days after Brown hailed the “bipartisan” accomplishments of a state legislative session that saw his favored bills passed easily.
Kashkari spent $2 million of his own money to defeat Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly in the primary race, and enjoyed the generosity of independent contributors as well. Yet the former U.S. Treasury official has struggled to mount an effective attack on Brown, despite effective stunts such as spending a week homeless on the streets of Fresno to draw attention to joblessness, or crashing a Brown speech to teachers’ union activists.
Against Donnelly, Kashkari emphasized his confidence and executive experience. It is a more difficult case to make against Brown, however, who is currently in his fourth term as governor (spaced over several decades) and who is credited, fairly or unfairly, with bringing a degree of stability and responsibly management to the state. (In a sense, Brown benefits from the radicalism of his party: he is seen as the least-worst Democrat.)
On the issues, Kashkari has struggled to find clear flash points. The one issue on which the majority of voters agree with him is on the state’s massive high-speed rail project, which Kashkari calls the “crazy train.” However, Kashkari has not yet found a way to use his opposition to rally voters. His position on other issues, such as education reform, have helped him consolidate Republican support but have not broken through in the media.
On immigration, Kashkari has taken a conservative but underplayed approach. He was quiet last week, for example, when Republicans protested the imprisonment of a U.S. Marine in Mexico (some from inside a luncheon with the Mexican president in Sacramento, others from outside). He has tended to avoid creating confrontations on issues that might polarize the electorate or further alienate Latino voters from the GOP.
Ironically, the ongoing border crisis, which would have worked powerfully in Donnelly’s favor given his history as a Minuteman, arose too late for the Assemblyman to work it into his primary campaign message. Kashkari has shown he can surge late in the game. The question now, with just two months remaining before Election Day, is whether this week’s debate can serve as a spark for Kashkari’s final push. He certainly has work to do.