Neel Kashkari, proud of his speech to the California Republican Party and weary of intraparty friction that distracted from his message for three days, said Sunday he has “set an example” for a party whose acceptance of him remains irresolute.
If Kashkari’s gubernatorial campaign has been running against type – he is socially moderate and unusually focused on poverty – he paced in front of delegates on the final day of the party’s fall convention, raised his index finger and said he is “damn proud” to be a Republican.
“We are the party of civil rights, we are the party fighting for minorities, we are the party fighting for working families, and we should be damn proud of who we are,” he said.
The speech was in contrast to one Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered in 2007, when he famously told delegates the party was “dying at the box office.”
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Kashkari was more warmly received. The crowd stood and applauded, but its optimism – and Kashkari’s – belied the demographics of an organization that has withered in California, becoming older and more conservative in recent decades as the electorate has become more liberal and diverse.
Distracting from Kashkari’s message was tension over the refusal of state controller candidate Ashley Swearengin and secretary of state candidate Pete Peterson to endorse him.
In response to the controversy, Jim Brulte, the party chairman, said in an email to party leaders Saturday that the party should have fewer conventions in the future.
“I have never believed we should have a convention this late in the election cycle,” Brulte said, adding that “they are costly” and “the press come looking to write the narrative that Republicans are fighting.”
In the email obtained by The Sacramento Bee, Brulte wrote, “Let’s try to show our face of one big happy family Move the needle forward for all our candidates in 2014 And then help me get rid of a couple of the four conventions this party has to hold every two years.”
It was against that backdrop that Kashkari delivered a high-profile speech less than two months before Election Day. He said the Republican Party has been misrepresented by Democrats as a party that doesn’t care about working families, the poor, minorities and women.
“That’s not who we are,” he said. “I want to help lead the fight to reintroduce us to the people of California and the people of America, because I am very proud of who we are.”
Kashkari cited Republicans’ historic ties to anti-slavery and, more recently, support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The crowd stood and applauded, and afterward Kashkari called his candidacy a “transformational moment” for the California GOP. He listed Republicans more prominent than Swearengin or Peterson who have endorsed him, including Mitt Romney, Kevin McCarthy and Jeb Bush.
“I’m the Republican nominee for governor, social libertarian, focused on economic issues,” Kashkari said. “Contrast this to the party four years ago: Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner locked in a contest to see who hates immigrants more. This is a transformational moment for our party. That’s the big picture.”
Four years ago, Whitman suffered in the general election after being pulled to the right on immigration by her opponent, Poizner, in a bid to appeal to GOP voters in the gubernatorial primary.
Four years later, Kashkari said, “I think I’ve now set an example for others to follow me, other candidates to follow me, and I’m really proud of that.”
Kashkari’s focus on upward mobility is in the vein of attempts on and off by Republicans to revive the legacy of Jack Kemp, the late congressman and George H.W. Bush administration official who trekked conservative economic messages to the inner city. Among them is U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky who addressed the California Republicans earlier in the convention.
Kemp’s effort to align the Republican Party with the poor foundered. Five years after his death, an enduring image of the most recent presidential campaign is Mitt Romney’s remarks about the “47 percent.”
“The tide is against us because the Republican Party hasn’t been talking about these issues,” Kashkari said in an interview. “It hasn’t been connecting the dots.”
Kashkari, 41, is in a difficult position to make these connections. He has little money for advertising and remains unknown to a large proportion of the electorate. And messages emanating from Washington – not Sacramento – tend to define a party’s image. The state party embraces that in a year in which President Barack Obama’s public approval rating has fallen.
“I always get a chuckle when people say, ‘I’m going to rebrand the Republican Party,’ ” said Matt Rexroad, a Republican political consultant. “Twenty-four hours a day we have news coming out of Washington, D.C., and that image is the Republican Party.”
Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs executive and U.S. Treasury Department official, spent a week posing as a homeless man in Fresno. The visit highlighted hardship in a state with a 23.8 percent poverty rate, the nation’s highest when using a U.S. Census Bureau calculation that includes the cost of living.
Kashkari ran the federal bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program while at the Treasury, and Brown – himself a millionaire – has cast Kashkari as an ally of the rich. Kashkari put his net worth at less than $5 million before spending about $2 million of his own money in the primary election.
“He’s not going to convince lots of Republicans in the Legislature to suddenly start talking about poverty all the time on his own,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego. “But his candidacy is helping to salvage the Republican brand At least it doesn’t drive it into the ground.”
Kashkari defeated a tea party-supported candidate, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, in the primary election. Last week, the hosts of KFI-AM’s conservative “John and Ken” show in Los Angeles, which served as an occasional platform for Donnelly, endorsed Kashkari. So did the Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, despite Kashkari’s support for gay marriage and abortion rights.
Asked if he could overlook Kashkari’s social views, Sheldon said, “When you’re starving, the crumbs taste darn good.”
Other conservatives are unpersuaded. Quinn Frederickson, who sold patriotic-themed jewelry from a stand beside Kashkari’s campaign booth at the convention, leaned against the wall and watched one night as Kashkari told a television reporter to “look how I’m spending my time,” including marching in a gay pride parade and speaking at African American churches. Frederickson, who wore a crystal, 3-inch-long replica of a six-shooter on her necklace, said Kashkari is a politician who “blows smoke up your rear end. The talking points are all about the underprivileged. Well, the needy in this country are the illegals, for the most part. Or blacks.”
Brulte, a former Senate Republican leader, told delegates at a poolside reception the party is “so fortunate to have a gubernatorial nominee that just doesn’t go to Republican communities and campaign, but is willing to go to every community and campaign.”
Privately, however, Brulte was managing controversy surrounding the non-endorsements. Swearengin, the mayor of Fresno, again left open the possibility she will vote for Brown in November, and her comments dominated coverage of the first day of the convention.
Ron Nehring, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, complained bitterly in an email about Swearengin “blowing off others on the statewide ticket.” He said the “main theme” of news coverage at the start of the convention was “that of Ashley Swearengin distancing herself from Neel.”
Brulte responded that he could “yell and scream and rant and rave and tell everybody let’s try to behave,” but that doing so is “not my style” and that he has “no ability to enforce my will anyway.”
Brulte said he hadn’t reviewed media coverage of the convention but that “I will trust Ron that our storyline is getting stepped on and that is tragic.”