Neel Kashkari Nomination Brings GOP Back From Brink

Saturday, 7 Jun 2014, 9:34:00 AM

Tom Elias

Thomas B. Elias, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Thomas B. Elias, Columnist

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 to for governor of California.

He was someplace every day. His

campaign issued a seemingly non-stop 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 week'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 fund-raising 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 over 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.

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