Neel Kashkari cuts into Tim Donnelly’s lead in GOP race for governor

Neel Kashkari has cut into Tim Donnelly’s lead among Republican candidates for governor, aided by an infusion of his own money in an increasingly divisive, inter-party race, according to a new poll.

Kashkari, a moderate Republican who barely registered with voters earlier this year, climbed to 10 percent support among likely voters, within striking distance of Donnelly at 15 percent, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.

The survey, released less than two weeks before the June 3 primary election, reflects tightening late in a bitter campaign between Kashkari and Donnelly. The poll comes after Kashkari donated $2 million to his campaign and his supporters – many of them prominent Republicans – raised concerns about the impact Donnelly, a tea party conservative, could have on the GOP’s effort to broaden its appeal in a left-leaning state.

“The question is, in a state of our size, what are the necessary resources to get yourself known, to get yourself liked,” said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. “Clearly Kashkari has more money. The question is, ‘Is it enough?’ ”

Neither Kashkari nor Donnelly is expected to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown, a popular Democrat. But the primary election race for second place – and a spot against Brown in the November runoff – is viewed by many Republicans as a significant test of the ideological direction of the party.

Donnelly, a former member of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project, has been clouded by controversies including his carrying of a loaded gun into Ontario International Airport in 2012, his comparison of President Barack Obama’s gun control policies to those of leaders such as Adolf Hitler and, most recently, his effort to tie Kashkari to Islamic law.

Last week, former Gov. Pete Wilson and strategist Karl Rove became the latest Republicans to warn that Donnelly would be a liability for Republicans across the country if he advances to the November election.

“If the California Republican Party has as the leading candidate, the leading statewide candidate on the ballot this year, somebody who has said the outrageous things that he’s said and prone to the outrageous behavior that he routinely engages in, it will be used to tarnish not only the California Republican Party, but they’ll throw it at everybody else on the ballot,” Rove told the conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt. “And everybody else will, across the country, disavow the guy.”

Yet Donnelly continues to rally the party’s conservative base. Donnelly, a state assemblyman from Twin Peaks, is backed by the conservative California Republican Assembly, and the Fresno County Republican Party endorsed him this week. Criticism from establishment Republicans appears to have had little effect: Donnelly’s support among likely voters is higher than earlier this year, according to PPIC, and a separate measure, by SurveyUSA, puts Donnelly over Kashkari 18 percent to 11 percent.

Donnelly said on 790 KABC talk radio in Los Angeles this week that Kashkari’s self-financing “kind of reeks of desperation.” Yet as Donnelly continues to operate on a shoestring budget, without enough money for traditional advertising, he has left Kashkari to define him in voters’ mailboxes in the final days of the campaign. Kashkari’s campaign released a mailer likening Donnelly to the governor. It calls Donnelly, who opposes tax increases and has criticized Brown’s budget, “just another wasteful spender like Jerry Brown.”

The Donnelly-Kashkari race is one of several contests playing out nationally between establishment and tea party candidates. A handful of those races were decided in primary elections Tuesday. In setbacks for the tea party, establishment candidates prevailed in U.S. Senate races in Kentucky, Georgia and Oregon.

In California, despite the rancor of the race, the gubernatorial campaign has attracted minimal interest. Fewer than half of likely primary voters say they are following news about the candidates closely, far below the more than two-thirds of likely voters who were paying close attention at this time in 2006 and 2010, according to the poll.

Nor are Republicans enthusiastic about their options. Just 43 percent of Republicans are satisfied with their choice of candidates in the primary, according to the poll. Thirty-seven percent of Republican likely voters aren’t satisfied with their choices, and 20 percent don’t know.

Brown leads his Republican challengers by more than 30 percentage points, according to the poll, and he reported Tuesday that he has nearly $21 million on hand for his campaign.

Donnelly and Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, have both criticized Brown for the state’s high poverty and unemployment rates, and they have accused him of reckless spending. But Brown has gained a reputation for moderation on fiscal matters. The poll suggests even Republican voters are generally satisfied with his most recent spending plan. The revised budget Brown released this month is supported by not only 84 percent of Democrats, but 62 percent of Republicans.

Brown declined to debate Donnelly and Kashkari in Anaheim last week, and he has largely refrained from public campaigning. But Brown defended his administration’s handling of the economy and state budget in a forceful speech Wednesday.

“California is definitely back,” Brown told about 1,300 people at the California Chamber of Commerce’s annual Host Breakfast in Sacramento. “Just a few years ago a few pundits, a few national publications were talking about California as a failed state. Well, just 31/2 years later, that deficit and that credit rating have been utterly transformed. We’ve eliminated – we, I mean the Legislature and my office working together – have eliminated a $27 billion deficit. That’s never been done before, but we did it.”

He lauded the state’s job growth, venture capital and agricultural production.

“This is a job creation engine,” Brown said. “It’s a place of imagination.”

Related information:

•  Outside donor group comes to Neel Kashkari's aid

•  Neel Kashkari likens Tim Donnelly to Jerry Brown in latest ad

•  The Buzz: Neel Kashkari drops another $1 million into governor's race

Related stories from Sacramento Bee