To defeat a popular incumbent Democratic governor this November, who will California primary voters choose as an alternative??
A social libertarian responsible for helping avert the worst of the financial crisis—or a former vigilante on the Mexican border who got busted trying to board an airplane with a loaded gun two years ago? It seems likely that primary voters will go with the latter on Tuesday.
Jerry Brown, 76, is the well-liked three-term incumbent (though those terms have been staggered - he was first elected in 1975, reelected in 1978, and elected again in 2011) who guided the Golden State out of the fiscal doom of the Arnold Schwarzenegger years (Schwarzenegger declined a request for comment from The Daily Beast) and into a budget surplus. Brown’s approval rating is currently at 59 percent.
A Republican governor in California becomes an instant national star and possible presidential contender. Nixon, Reagan and, if he had been born on American soil, Schwarzenegger. Who the CA GOP nominates says a lot about what they want for the future of not just the state, but the country. As the CA GOP struggles to find its footing amid demographic changes and a national GOP grappling with its own identity crisis, you would think becoming competitive again would be a top priority. And you would, apparently, be wrong.
Brown's likely challenger is Tim Donnelly, a far-right Republican assemblyman from Twin Peaks, who is currently on probation.
In 2012, Donnelly, balding and bespectacled, arrived at the airport in Ontario. Inside the state assemblyman’s carry-on bag was a .45-caliber Colt Mark IV—its magazine loaded with four rounds—and an additional magazine, loaded with five rounds.
Donnelly was detained and his weapon was confiscated. Ultimately, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges, and was placed on three years probation and fined $2,215. Donnelly maintained that he had simply forgotten that he was carrying the gun until he went through the security checkpoint.
“How many times have you walked out of your house and forgotten your keys? Or left your coffee on the table? Or walked out of your office without your computer?” Donnelly’s campaign spokesman, Art Haynie, asked me. “He just grabbed the wrong bag.”
Donnelly is a Tea Party Patriot and a former member of the controversial Minuteman Project, a vigilante group which set out to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. The Southern Poverty Law Center charged that the group was heavily-armed and allowed “some neo-Nazis and other racists” to join. Although Donnelly left the Minuteman Project in 2006, the group formally endorsed his gubernatorial candidacy—which he advertises on his website.
In 2010, Donnelly rode the Tea Party wave into the state Assembly. There, Haynie told me, “I think he won the record for the most ‘no’ votes,” and earned a reputation as an unrelenting conservative. In 2013, Donnelly formally announced he would seek the Republican nomination in California’s 2014 race for the governor’s office.
Running while on probation has its risks. In February of this year, Donnelly seemed to have violated the terms of his probation when he fired a Glock 19 handgun at an indoor gun range. Donnelly laughed the incident off on a radio show, saying, “It’s considered rude if you don’t fire someone’s gun when it’s offered to you.” Haynie assured me that the terms of Donnelly’s probation state that while he cannot carry a gun, he can, in fact, shoot someone else’s.
Donnelly’s chief competitor for second place in the non-partisan top two primary is Neel Kashkari, is a far more mainstream Republican with impressive credentials.
After graduating from the University of Illinois, Kashkari designed satellites for NASA, then went on to business school and got a job at Goldman Sachs. Kashkari was appointed to the Department of Treasury in 2006 by President George W. Bush. In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, Kashkari was confirmed as assistant secretary of the Treasury. Kashkari’s official biography states that he “negotiated with congressional leaders in both parties to write...landmark legislation to prevent a widespread economic collapse.”
Kashkari, an Indian American who looks vaguely like a bald Ray Romano, is both pro-choice and a supporter of same-sex marriage. “He would say that he’s a fiscal conservative, but he’s a social libertarian,” Jessica Hsiang Ng, a spokesman for Kashkari, told The Daily Beast. Kashkari has said that he voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
Kashkari has been endorsed by Romney, Jeb Bush and Condoleezza Rice--but it hasn’t helped him much. Kashkari is trailing Donnelly in the polls by an average of six points. (Donnelly is himself trailing Brown by an incredible 36 points).
“The establishment doesn’t want him for whatever reason, but the people clearly do because look at the polls! Tim’s been in the front from the get-go,” Donnelly’s spokesman, Haynie, told The Daily Beast. “Tim could care less about the party system.”
Experts are expecting record-low voter turnout for the June 3 nonpartisan “top two" primary and upwards of 50 percent of votes to be cast by mail. And the biggest obstacle for both Donnelly and Kashkari will be low name ID. Donnelly, who has at least held elected office in California for a few years, is more well-known than his opponent, but some say a Donnelly victory will be bad news for California’s GOP and for the conservative movement at large.
“If Tim Donnelly does get the nomination, it could wipe out all of the gains that the establishment Republicans have made nationwide, because the fringe candidates undoubtedly color the discourse,” Mike Madrid, a Sacramento-based Republican strategist, told The Daily Beast. “We know it’s not going to be helpful [if he gets elected]. The question is, how harmful [would it be]?”
Some would point to former Gov. Pete Wilson and Proposition 187 as the point at which the California Republican Party began to fall. The 1994 measure was intended to block illegal immigrants from state benefits like health care and public education.
Wilson fervently supported Prop 187, which was approved by voters the same day he was approved for another term as governor. Though the proposition was overturned by courts and never became law—it had a lasting impact on the Golden State. Twenty years later, the size of the Latino electorate in California has doubled.
To blame the weakened state of the party on “any one campaign or politician,” Madrid told the Daily Beast, would be “easy, but inaccurate.”
“It’s really important to understand that no state has undergone the significant demographic transformation that California has, and that’s undeniably driving the political outcome of the races we’re seeing.
“Latino voters are younger, they’re poorer and they more recently migrated than the rest of the population.”
The GOP’s inability to put forth a viable candidate for Tuesday’s primary is a symptom of an ailing state party, Madrid said—and it will take time to fix it “This has been 20 years in the making. It’s going to be at least four or six years before you start to see any [Republican] rebirth, if it’s going to happen at all.” After all, he added, “Demographics are destiny.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece has been updated to clarify that California does not have a partisan primary for Governor.