In a low-dollar California governor’s race, advertising pushes Neel Kashkari ahead of Tim Donnelly

Neel Kashkari’s campaign for governor was on the brink of irrelevance two months ago.

He was polling at 2 percent. His fundraising had fallen off, and Tim Donnelly, his tea party-backed rival, was pummeling him with the GOP’s rank and file.

At party gatherings across the state, Kashkari was skewered by conservatives for his vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and for his management of the $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.

But statewide elections are typically won on television and in the mail, and Kashkari had resources Donnelly couldn’t match.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Kashkari poured $2 million of his own money into the race, while establishment Republicans such as former Gov. Pete Wilson and strategist Karl Rove warned publicly that Donnelly would drag the Republican Party’s image down.

In an unusually low-profile gubernatorial election, the effort was enough.

“For most Republican voters, if they heard from anybody, they heard from Kashkari, and in a vacuum a little means a lot,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College. “If Donnelly had been able to raise some money, the outcome might have been quite different.”

By mid-May, Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, had cut into Donnelly’s lead in public opinion polls, and by the weekend a USC/Los Angeles Times poll showed him in front. On election night, Kashkari emerged about 4 percentage points ahead of Donnelly, surviving a bitter, intraparty primary fight to advance to a runoff against Gov. Jerry Brown in November.

Kashkari’s success relieved members of the party’s professional and political classes, who feared the potential impact of Donnelly on the party’s effort to improve its standing with minorities and young voters. Kashkari and his supporters tore into Donnelly for his behavior and controversial remarks about immigration, guns and Islamic law.

Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who said he planned to open a “Republicans for Brown” campaign committee if Donnelly won, said the “repetition of one Republican leader after another” urging voters to choose Kashkari “finally broke through” with the electorate.

“This is the ‘no information’ election, and at the end of the day, Neel was the one who was able to get a little information out there,” Stutzman said. “If Donnelly had had even $1.5 million, he could have turned it around on Kashkari because of the negatives Kashkari had to Republican voters.”

In addition to voting for Obama and running the bank bailout, a deeply unpopular market intervention, Kashkari supports same-sex marriage, abortion rights and a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. These are liabilities for conservative voters, but Donnelly’s inability to raise money left him incapable of exploiting them. Left unanswered on TV and in voters’ mail boxes were ads in which Kashkari defined himself as a “political outsider” and a “problem solver with real world experience and a record of getting things done.”

Kashkari said on KGO 810 radio one day before the election that “most voters had not been paying attention to the race,” and all he needed was “to introduce myself to voters.”

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Wilson, said Kashkari “showed what it takes to simply get by” in a “bare minimum election.”

But tension persists between Kashkari and the party’s conservative wing. Now, Whalen said, “Will those Republicans who supported Donnelly ... will they rally behind the Republican standard bearer? I don’t know, because this is a group that is very dug in in its position.”

John Briscoe, president of the conservative California Republican Assembly, said Wednesday that he would “like to think that conservatives will get behind (Kashkari),” but “obviously not as enthusiastically” as if Donnelly had come out ahead.

Briscoe said he congratulated Kashkari in an email Wednesday and offered to meet with him to “see how we might be able to work together for the good of the ticket in November.”

Kashkari’s liberal social views and vote for Obama “disqualified him from getting our endorsement,” Briscoe said, “but I’d like to think he’s better than Jerry Brown.”

Kashkari was making overtures to conservative activists less than 12 hours after declaring victory, praising Donnelly and saying he would be “reaching out to all Republican groups.”

“Too often we as Republicans spend time fighting with one another,” Kashkari said at a news conference Wednesday in Corona del Mar. “If we are united, supporting each other and focusing our energy on changing Sacramento, we will be much more successful.”

In a preview of his general election campaign, Kashkari assailed Brown for the state’s low education attainment rankings and high poverty and unemployment rates.

“Governor Brown, we are going to make you answer for our lack of jobs,” he said. “Governor Brown, we are going to make you answer for our failing schools, and Governor Brown, we are going to make you answer for our record poverty.”

In his dispatching of Donnelly, however, Kashkari received no broad mandate – or even a first-place finish. The success Kashkari celebrated was receiving 19 percent of the vote, more than 35 percentage points behind the first place finisher, Brown.

The third-term Democrat is the heavy favorite going into the November election, with a high public approval rating and about $21 million banked for the campaign.

Brown told reporters outside the historic governor’s mansion in Sacramento on Tuesday night that he is going to “campaign hard” and that, “I take nothing for granted.”

But Brown largely ignored his Republican challengers during the primary election, and it is unclear if Kashkari will manage to engage him in the fall.

Brown was asked twice Tuesday about the prospect of debating Kashkari. First he said it was too “early in the morning” to “comment on substantive campaign matters.” Later he said, “We’ll do whatever is needed.”

Unlike in his race against Donnelly, Kashkari is almost certain to be outspent by Brown. He acknowledged that Wednesday. But he said, “I’m going to work very hard to raise the resources we need to get our message out.”

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