Four years ago, Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner were in the bell lap of a California Republican gubernatorial primary that saw the two spend an outlandish $109 million – more that what the Kardashians have blown through on three (so far) over-the-top weddings.
Four days from now, either Assemblyman Tim Donnelly or businessman Neel Kashkari will have earned the right to face Gov. Jerry Brown in November – at a combined cost to the two Republican candidates of maybe $5 million, not quite one-twentieth of 2010’s excess.
Welcome to Hotel California’s bargain basement.
Dating back to 1978 and the last time Brown ran for re-election (this doesn’t include Tuesday’s contest), Republicans in America’s nation-state have slugged it out six times in primaries in which the party lacked the luxury of an incumbent governor. On average, the winner spent $17.3 million. Deduct Whitman’s $65.3 million outlay in 2010, and it’s a more manageable $7.7 million.
The moral of this story isn’t that money buys love. Only two of those primary winners went on to win in November – George Deukmejian in 1982 and Pete Wilson in 1990. But they were playing with more chips on the table. The $5 blackjack look-and-feel of the Republican competition in this year’s primary adds to the incredulity of the state GOP’s existence in the top-of-the-slate race.
Let’s begin with the candidates. Donnelly is a legislator of little renown, other than the ability to spout inanities both headline-grabbing and mind-numbing (in March, for example, likening President Barack Obama to Aldolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin for supporting gun control).
Kashkari has a more appealing message of outreach to Californians who have left the fold or might feel excluded; he’s the more sensible centrist in the race. But lacking Whitman-like finances or an Arnold-like biography, his is a campaign designed to survive the open primary, not flourish. As such, it doesn’t inspire confidence.
Yes, the two Republicans have their differences, immigration being a big one (just as it was in the Whitman-Poizner race four years ago). In fact, policy and ideological divides are nothing new in California GOP circles.
The difference this time: The Republicans are competing not so much to be more popular, but instead to see who can manage to be the less obscure option.
Earlier this week, the Hoover Institution released a Golden State Poll on the governor’s race. Brown led the field at 36 percent, followed by Donnelly (12 percent) and Kashkari (5 percent) – the same order of finish as in other statewide surveys.
The eye-opener: 42 percent of Republicans are still undecided. Among self-identified moderates, it’s 40 percent. Kashkari’s numbers reveal the perils of trying to mount a “big tent” approach with little name recognition and not much of a media splash until a fortnight before the primary. Kashkari trailed 2-1 among Republicans and 3-1 among independents. Despite a campaign of Republicans reconciling with minorities, he received support of only 7 percent of Asian respondents, 3 percent of Hispanics and 1 percent of blacks.
This is not to suggest that Tuesday’s results will include Kashkari’s political obituary. With a late advertising push, a circling of the wagons in the form of independent expenditures and an opponent whose support seems to have a low ceiling, the guess here is Kashkari slips past Donnelly and finishes second.
And his likely November opponent?
In his 1978 re-election, Brown had the good fortune of drawing then-Attorney General Evelle Younger on the Republican side. Younger didn’t spend much to win that year’s GOP primary – about $1.13 a vote (a record Donnelly likely breaks if he finishes ahead of Kashkari).
But after the primary, Younger made a tactical blunder; he vacationed in Hawaii. Then, his campaign remained dark due to the candidate’s illness. During that absence, Brown took the high ground on Proposition 13, flip-flopping from opposition to support.
As the general election campaign progressed, not helping matters was Younger’s dull presence on the stump – “as exciting as a mashed potato sandwich”, in one journalist’s words – prompting the columnist George Will to liken Brown to “an exotic condiment – like strong chutney.”
In the end, voters found the comfort food discomforting. The mashed potatoes received only 36.5 percent of the November vote – a “Mendoza line” for Republican futility in a gubernatorial race that might be Brown’s only real motivation this fall.
Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact him at email@example.com.