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Kashkari Battles for Footing in Calif. Governor's Race

Kashkari Battles for Footing in Calif. Governor's Race

By Adam O'Neal - May 30, 2014

RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. -- Neel Kashkari, a Republican running for governor in California, has a theory to explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately was not considered an effective chief executive during his seven years in office. 

“Like so many Hollywood celebrities, I think he wanted to be loved,” Kashkari told a group of about three dozen small business owners Wednesday afternoon. In contrast, he added, “I’m the guy who ran TARP. I don’t need to be loved.”  

Though Kashkari -- a former Bush administration Treasury official who oversaw that controversial 2008 bank bailout -- was joking, he likely is more concerned with increasing his name recognition than with winning voters’ affection.  

The 40-year-old Laguna Beach resident is trudging through an uphill primary fight that, if he finishes second on Tuesday, will lead to an even tougher challenge in November. RealClearPolitics rates the race as “safe” for Democrats, the most secure designation. So far, Kashkari’s greatest enemy appears to be his relative anonymity. 

The top two contenders in California’s gubernatorial primary -- in which candidates from all parties compete together -- will advance to the general election. Incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown is certain to easily take first place and could accumulate more than 50 percent of the tally. The only question is who his opponent will be. (The three-term governor recently told RCP that he has only “mild interest” in the outcome among the also-rans.) 

Though a number of other candidates will appear on the ballot, the real contest for second place is between Kashkari and Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. The state legislator, a Tea Party favorite first elected in 2010, has consistently led Kashkari in the polls, sometimes by double digits. 

Kashkari believes that the outcome of the June 3 primary will have serious implications not just for his state but also for Republicans throughout the country. He has argued that Donnelly, because of his criminal record and polarizing views, would damage the Republican brand elsewhere. GOP heavyweights like Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Condoleezza Rice agree, having backed Kashkari in a race that otherwise has attracted little national attention. 

The former banker remains confident that he can pull ahead of Donnelly by Tuesday, thanks largely to his cash advantage and the media and mailer campaign it affords. While Donnelly’s expenditures total nearly $600,000, Kashkari had spent $2.7 million as of the last filing deadline. 

“Paid voter outreach ends up being very, very important. And we have the resources, and we’re reaching voters,” he said. 

Kashkari cited his long list of endorsements -- which also includes backing from former California Gov. Pete Wilson and top Republican state legislators -- as another way he has boosted his standing. 

Though he’s promised to support Republicans throughout the state in the general election, he isn’t a particularly big Donnelly fan. Asked how he would describe the Twin Peaks legislator, Kashkari replied, “Bomb-thrower.” 

“He’s great at giving red meat to a den of hungry lions,” the former Goldman Sachs banker added. “That’s not going to rebuild the party.” 

The “jungle primary” system has also created a unique dynamic for Kashkari. Republicans in blue or purple states typically appeal to the party’s conservative base during the primary, and then shift toward the center for the general election. But since any voter can cast a ballot for any candidate in the Golden State on Tuesday, Kashkari is wooing the GOP base -- he has run ads on the Fox News Channel, for instance -- while simultaneously running a more moderate appeal to other voters.  

It’s difficult to find one simple, overarching pattern in his political positions, though Kashkari describes himself as a “pro-growth Republican.” Much of his economic agenda is focused on finding conservative solutions to problems that typically draw Democratic attention, like income inequality. 

He is pro-choice, supports same-sex marriage and backs a “long pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. Kashkari opposes legalizing marijuana -- and says he has never smoked it himself -- but supports sentencing reform. While he opposes new taxes, he has said that instituting new tax cuts wouldn’t be an early priority in his administration. He also said he has no interest in or need to sign a pledge to never raise taxes. 

His campaign slogan reads: “Jobs and Education. That’s It.” 

“If we focus like a laser on the struggles of working families in California, we can win,” he told the audience when asked how, as a Republican, he could beat Brown in such a deep blue state.  

Kashkari has also focused much of his campaign on the state’s wayward high-speed rail project, which he calls “the crazy train” and a “monument to Jerry Brown.” He has vowed to immediately kill the project upon taking office. Brown, meanwhile, has vehemently defended the project as a necessary investment in the state’s aging infrastructure.  

Kashkari, recognizing the incumbent’s popularity in the state, has also found creative ways to frame his critiques of the governor. 

“Nobody hates Jerry Brown,” he asserted. “He’s like your old uncle. Everybody likes your uncle, even if he’s a little nutty.”

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the Kashkari campaign, in an e-mail to RCP, clarified Kashkari's positions on tax policy.

With regards to the no-tax pledge, she said Kashkari "doesn't need a piece of paper to tell voters that he's not raising taxes -- said another way, he's saying that his words are his pledge."

She also pointed out that Kashkari believes "there are political challenges in cutting most taxes because our system is so progressive" but he has still called for an immediate cut to the sales tax. 

Adam O'Neal is a political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at aoneal@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearAdam.

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