SACRAMENTO — California’s primary for governor this year has become a race for second place. With Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, widely predicted to take the top spot, two Republican candidates with starkly contrasting views and styles are jostling for financial and voter support.
The June 3 primary is the first governor’s race under California’s new primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to November regardless of their party affiliation. The new system could have been a game-changer, but the contest is shaping up more like a typical Republican primary, with conservative state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari fighting for support.
Brown, 76, holds a sizeable lead in fundraising and in public opinion polls. He has collected more than $20 million from a range of corporate and union interests and has support from virtually every constituency, including about a third of Republicans in a recent Field Poll.
His current job and his reputation as a fiscally conservative Democrat have given Brown a massive pulpit, making it hard for Donnelly and Kashkari to gain traction with a broader audience.
“Campaigning generally increases dramatically as you get closer to the election, but that assumes there is a race,” said Kim Nalder, director of the Project for an Informed Electorate at California State University, Sacramento. “Because of the prominence of Jerry Brown in this campaign, we’re not even seeing much advertising.”
Prominent Republicans such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former California Gov. Pete Wilson are coalescing around Kashkari, but he has struggled in polls, drawing just 2 percent support among likely voters in an April Field Poll.
Kashkari, 40, is a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who is best known for helping lead the federal bank bailout at the height of the recession. He has focused on economic issues and education reform, and supports immigration reform, gay marriage and abortion rights.
“I’m hoping that me, as the son of immigrants, as somebody young, somebody who looks a little unusual compared to the typical Republican candidate ... I’m confident I can reach a lot more diverse group of voters in California and say there’s a new Republican Party in town and we are fighting for you,” Kashkari, whose parents immigrated from India, told a group of young supporters in March.
Younger and nonwhite voters have largely deserted the California GOP ever since Republicans backed Proposition 187 in 1994, which sought to ban immigrants who are in the country illegally from access to most social services. GOP registration in the state is now just 29 percent.
Donnelly, 47, is an ardent gun-rights supporter from the San Bernardino County mountain community of Twin Peaks and a former minuteman who patrolled the U.S.-Mexico border in search of immigrants in the country illegally. He appeals to the other faction of the California GOP, whose members profess allegiance to “core Republican values” such as individual responsibility and limited government.
Donnelly has been traveling the state in a borrowed motor home emblazoned with the American flag and dubbed the “Liberty Express.” His campaign faces an ethics complaint for failing to report it as a gift in a timely fashion.
He has continued to advocate for expanding gun rights, even though he has tried to focus his campaign on broader themes.
“The very first thing that I would do is commit to have a moratorium on all new laws that contain a restriction on your business, on your freedom and on your constitutional civil rights,” Donnelly said in an interview. “I’m willing to veto almost every bill that hits my desk unless it increases freedom, eases restrictions or reforms and streamlines and shrinks government.”
Donnelly’s campaign has struggled to raise money, bringing in about $335,000 since last year and recently appealing to donors for free office space. His disagreements with staff also have become public, first when his former campaign manager resigned in March, then when Donnelly fired his legislative chief of staff in April.
Still, he has about 17 percent support among likely voters, according to an April Field Poll, making him the GOP front-runner.
“If Democrats got to sit around and dream up the perfect candidate to oppose Brown, they really couldn’t have chosen better: anti-immigrant, anti-gay marriage, anti-compromise in the Legislature,” said Nalder, of Sacramento State. “He’s really everything that the moderate wing of the Republican Party wants to get away from.”
That is one reason so-called establishment Republicans are pushing Kashkari’s candidacy, helping him raise about $1.7 million so far. Still, the June electorate is expected to be overwhelmingly conservative, older and whiter than California’s overall voter registration base. That means the independent voters Kashkari is trying to attract are not likely to turn out in great numbers.
Brown, who has declined interview requests from The Associated Press, is unlikely to campaign ahead of the primary.
“He’s going to continue to lead, but people aren’t begging for political stunts and prop-filled theatrics. They want a leader,” said Brown’s political spokesman, Dan Newman. “The best way to understand what someone will do is to see what they’ve done and what they’re doing.”
Since resuming the office he held for two terms from 1975-1983, Brown has been credited with reversing the state’s economic decline and eliminating a $27 billion budget deficit after persuading voters in 2010 to approve a temporary increase in the state sales tax and a temporary increase in the income tax on the wealthy. Those tax hikes are generating an extra $6 billion a year for the state budget.
He also won wide praise last year for overhauling the state’s education financing system to send more money to schools with high concentrations of low-income and minority students. Kashkari and Donnelly both say the change was a step in the right direction but did not go far enough to empower local school officials to make decisions and turn around the state’s worst-performing schools.
In all, 15 candidates will appear on the ballot, including Laguna Hills Mayor Andrew Blount, another Republican who was seeking the office but dropped out in April, citing health issues, after the field of candidates was certified. Another Republican appearing on the ballot is Glenn Champ, a registered sex offender from the Fresno area who says he has turned his life around since being in prison and finding God. He has not opened a campaign account with the secretary of state’s office.