California Governor Primary: Battle of the Unknowns

California Governor Primary: Battle of the Unknowns

While California is home to just over five million registered Republicans, with our state’s massive population, the GOP piece of the overall pie is just 28.6% of all voters. And that slice is diminishing: in 2002 Republicans had a 35% market share. These daunting voter registration figures set the table for the current contest within the Republican Party for who will face popular incumbent Democratic Governor Jerry Brown this November, in a state that has become reliably blue. 

These daunting voter registration figures set the table for the current contest within the Republican Party for who will face popular incumbent Democratic Governor Jerry Brown this November, in a state that has become reliably blue.

The Republican bench for statewide office is sparse, and those few “big” names out there that might have jumped into the race opted out, no doubt by the seeming quixotic nature of a run.

Thus we have the battle of the unknowns: second-term Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, and former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari.

Donnelly is a conservative firebrand, most well known for his pre-Assembly days as a leader of the California Minutemen, a citizens’ border patrol group. Donnelly has been engaged in a statewide grassroots campaign for nearly a year and a half.

Donnelly’s biggest challenge is his inability to raise money.  While in aggregate he’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, he’s burned through that and actually heads into the final sprint with a substantial six-figure campaign debt. Also dogging Donnelly has been an arrest for carrying a firearm into an airport, a crime for which he is currently on probation–and a lingering sense that he is always one speech away from a national controversy.

Neel Kashari is most certainly a moderate GOPer, though he would prefer to characterize himself as a “libertarian” Republican. We know the formula–he calls himself fiscally conservative, and on many issues he certainly is–but he also supports abortion rights, and on the issue of same-sex marriage he opposed Proposition 8.  

Unlike Donnelly, Kashkari has had a modicum of success raising funds–the better part of two million dollars, much of it from friends and colleagues: he’s an alumnus of both Goldman Sachs and PIMCO. His highest profile resume item is also his biggest political liability in June: namely, Kashkari was tapped by two U.S. presidents to oversee the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (“TARP”), characterized by detractors on the right and left as the “Wall Street bailout.”

A Public Policy Institute of California survey taken earlier this month showed that among Republican voters, Donnelly held a lead with 20%, with Kashkari at just 5%. 58% of Republicans were undecided. I would attribute Donnelly’s showing to his title on the ballot, “Assemblyman,” as well as the cumulative effect of 16 months of energetic campaigning.

By all accounts, it will be a very low turnout election. Paul Mitchell of Political Data pegs it at around a measly 27%. That may actually benefit Kashkari more than Donnelly, despite the latter being more conservative.

Low turnout means that a candidate can communicate with likely voters for less money (there are only about 1.4 million Republicans who voted in all four of the most recent statewide elections)  In the case of Donnelly, this is kind of moot: he has no resources for mail, television, television or digital advertising–at least not of any substance. He will have to rely on volunteer word-of-mouth.

Kashkari has the resources to produce at least a half-dozen mailings statewide to GOP voters, and he has also bought onto every conceivable piece of slate mail, which means his name, photo and a sentence or two of text on north of ten million pieces of mail. Kashkari should also have some budget for cable television advertising as election-day approaches: I’d look for his spots on Fox News.

The question that everyone will have to ask, but only the voters can answer, is whether Donnelly has built up enough of an early lead to stay ahead of Kashkari’s paid-voter contact efforts.   

It would be foolish to draw any kind of conclusion that based on the outcome of this battle that GOP voters are consciously choosing a “direction” for the future of the party. Republican voters in California are conservative. If you look back to the campaigns of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 recall, or Meg Whtiman in the primary of 2010, both of these moderate Republicans campaigned with red-meat messages to the GOP base (remember Arnold waving his broom?). Kashkari’s mail to GOP voters will focus on his fiscal conservatism. Donnelly’s problem is that his lack of resources leaves Kashkari free to frame himself to Republican voters as he sees fit.

As for the ultimate battle between either Kashkari or Donnelly against Jerry Brown: that is an extremely uphill battle, to say the least. Besides the daunting numerical advantage of Democrats in California, Brown has benefitted from many in the media as well as many legislative Republicans praising him for being the “adult supervision” in the Capitol, creating a misperception that Brown is somehow moderate–which he most assuredly is not.