Governor: Tim Donnelly congratulates Neel Kashkari

Neel Kashkari eclipsed rival Republican Tim Donnelly in the governor’s race late Tuesday, while Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was poised to finish first by an enormous margin.

Kashkari, a moderate Republican, was ahead of the tea party-backed Donnelly 18 percent to 15 percent when Donnelly conceded the race and called Kashkari to congratulate him. Neither Republican came close to touching Brown, who led all challengers with 55 percent of the vote. He will face Kashkari in the fall.

The ballot counting ended one of the lowest-profile gubernatorial primary elections in recent California history. Brown, a popular third-term governor, was so heavily favored he barely campaigned, and neither Republican is expected to unseat him in November.

Yet the race between Donnelly and Kashkari was viewed by many Republicans as a significant measure of the ideological direction of the GOP in California. Donnelly, the Legislature’s most outspoken gun rights advocate and opponent of illegal immigration, rallied conservative activists, while members of the party’s political and professional classes, desperate to improve the GOP’s standing with minorities and young voters, coalesced around Kashkari, a more moderate politician.

Kashkari said in a prepared statement late Tuesday that he admired Donnelly for his “hard work and determination.”

“He has worked tirelessly for the last 18 months, and I commend the dedication of him and his supporters,” Kashkari said. “Beginning tonight, Republicans must come together, support one another and focus our energy on changing Sacramento.”

The matchup between Kashkari and Donnellyonce appeared unlikely. Donnelly, an assemblyman from Twin Peaks, was perhaps best known outside his district for carrying a loaded firearm into Ontario International Airport, and Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, had never held elected office when he quit his job at Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co., hired a team of advisers and began courting donors.

Early in the campaign, many Republicans waited for a more experienced or wealthy candidate to emerge. But no one did, and an early contender, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, dropped out of the race in January after failing for nearly two months to collect a single major contribution.

That left Donnelly and Kashkari in what Jon Fleischman, the conservative blogger and former state GOP executive director, would later call “this epic struggle to see who will lose in November.”

Donnelly, with no money for traditional advertising, initially relied on provocative Web videos to gain attention, saying he wanted to make California “the sexiest” place to do business and objecting to being called “white.”

“I’m a fleshy, pinkish tone,” the former member of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project said in an early video.

Donnelly, 48, canvassed the state in a borrowed RV, nursing controversies for the publicity they afforded him. He remained on probation for the duration of the campaign after pleading no contest to two misdemeanor gun charges in the airport incident in 2012. Donnelly said he forgot the gun was in his bag.

“If you’re a single-issue voter on the gun issue,” Donnelly said at a gun store in Stockton in February, “you have now had my message communicated to you very effectively.”

The message resonated with the party’s conservative base. The conservative California Republican Assembly endorsed Donnelly, and rank-and-file activists erupted in cheers when he addressed the state party convention outside San Francisco in March.

Kashkari, 40, could never make such a connection with the party’s base. He supports same-sex marriage, abortion rights and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, and his signature experience in government was managing a deeply unpopular market intervention, the $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Even more problematic for Kashkari was his vote for Barack Obama in 2008. His explanation to Republican crowds, that Obama was receiving better economic advice than the Republican nominee, John McCain, did little to inoculate him from persistent criticism.

Nor were Kashkari’s Wall Street connections as helpful financially as expected. After raising nearly $1 million in the first two weeks of his campaign, Kashkari’s fundraising tapered off so badly that he donated $2 million of his own money to the effort to fund advertisements late in the campaign. Republican benefactor Charles Munger Jr. and billionaire Robert Day put an additional $400,000 into an independent expenditure committee supporting Kashkari and attacking Donnelly in the final days of the race.

Donnelly led Kashkari by a wide margin for most of the year, but Kashkari’s self-financing and outside assistance helped tighten the race in the final month. Kashkari portrayed himself as a conservative Republican in his advertising, and establishment Republicans worried about Donnelly advancing to the runoff issued public rebukes of the early front-runner.

After Donnelly tried to tie Kashkari, who is Hindu, to Islamic law, former Gov. Pete Wilson and GOP strategist Karl Rove, among others, warned that allowing Donnelly to represent the Republican Party in the November election could damage not only the state party, but Republican candidates nationwide.

“Keeping public focus on the real and important issues facing California will require a candidate who does not have to defend Tim Donnelly’s bizarre votes and statements or his irresponsible personal behavior,” Wilson said in an open letter. “With Tim Donnelly on the ballot, it would be a losing campaign, risking injury to our party and our state, and to other Republican candidates who deserve to win.”

Donnelly said establishment Republicans were out of touch and that Kashkari’s self-financing was a sign of desperation. But without any money to counter Kashkari on TV, he was left to hope Kashkari’s advertising effort was too limited, or came too late, to overtake him.

While Donnelly and Kashkari skirmished, Brown relished his high public approval ratings and relatively safe re-election prospects in a Democratic-leaning state. Brown, governor before from 1975 to 1983, did almost no visible campaigning and has about $21 million banked for the general election campaign.

Brown, 76, surpassed Earl Warren last year as California’s longest-serving governor. If he wins re-election, he will become the only California governor elected to four terms.

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