Real question in California governor's race: Can Neel Kashkari change GOP?

Republican Neel Kashkari, a supporter of abortion rights and gay marriage, is given little chance against Gov. Jerry Brown in November. But he could have a big impact on the California GOP's future.

Chris Carlson/AP
California Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari addresses supporters during an election night party Tuesday in Newport Beach, Calif.

While Republican Neel Kashkari has won the right to face Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in November, it’s a race most analysts say he has almost no chance of winning. Yet an intriguing question remains: Can his candidacy – an attempt to create what his supporters call a new kind of Republican – revive a moribund California GOP?

If he succeeds, analysts say, it could have a significant bearing on the gubernatorial election in four years’ time.

In the state’s new single, nonpartisan primary system – changed by voters in 2010 in an effort to break partisan deadlock – candidates who finish first and second in elections for statewide or federal office compete in a November runoff. On Tuesday, Governor Brown finished way ahead of the pack with 54.5 percent of the vote, while Mr. Kashkari, with 19 percent, defeated tea party-backed Tim Donnelly, with 14.9 percent, in the race for second place.

The Republican Party has been on a steady decline in California for more than two decades. In 2010, Republican Meg Whitman, running as a “centrist,” spent $178 million and couldn’t draw within 10 percent of Brown in a race for the open governor’s seat. No Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2006, and the GOP's share of registered voters in the state has dipped to a historic low of 29.3 percent. No viable Republican candidates have emerged this year to contest statewide offices such as attorney general, controller, treasurer, or lieutenant governor.

Enter Mr. Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker and US Treasury official. In stump speeches and TV ads, he says he is out to change Republicans’ fortunes with no less than a remake of the party – by appealing to women and minorities and jettisoning the GOP’s image as the “party of no.”

The son of Indian immigrants, the 40-year-old Kashkari is divorced and a supporter of both abortion rights and gay marriage.

A fiscal conservative who says he voted for President Obama in 2008, he oversaw President Bush's bank-rescue plan after the financial crisis, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“He’s very smart, very moderate, and it is a mystery to me why he announced for governor rather than controller or treasurer, where his credentials lie,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

But on paper at least, his plan is sound, analysts say.

“Republican voters across the country, and most Americans for that matter, would like to see visionary leaders who have a willingness to work together to solve the serious challenges we all face,” says Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “The primary win for Neel Kashkari reflects that desire.”

Professor Shires and others say it’s not likely that Kashkari can succeed right away, but perhaps in the longer term.

“This is the kind of leadership and vision that will allow Republicans to make up some of the ground they have lost over the past two decades,” says Shires. “If built upon over the next four years, it is precisely the kind of message that could play well against the very liberal platforms that [Lt. Gov.] Gavin Newsom and [Secretary of State] Kamala Harris will bring to the governor’s race in 2018.”

While Kashkari appears to be following the strategy of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other California Republicans who proclaimed centrist views as the state has become more Democratic, some analysts say Kashkari’s views on social issues are deeply antithetical to those of many core party activists. The strategy depends on whether or not Kashkari can make a strong enough appeal to the party’s core as a fiscal conservative.

“Should he perform well we may be seeing a sea change in the social issue orientation of the California Republican party,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “There may be some future for the state GOP with many voters if they perceive it as less uniformly conservative than it has been in recent years. Kashkari's candidacy is premised on that possibility.”

But interviews with voters and immigrant groups seem to indicate that the fortunes of the Republican Party are headed in the opposite direction. It began in 1994 when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson pushed through Proposition 187, which denied illegal immigrants health care and education. Immigrants say the antipathy toward the GOP has only solidified among Hispanics, who now outnumber whites in California.

“The Democrats of California realized they have been in the ascendancy because they appealed to us, and the Republicans need to realize they need the Latino vote, but it’s not going to happen,” says Diana Colin, action fund director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

All this said, there are some analysts who say it is not out of the question that Kashkari could change things dramatically.

“Recall that it really was not very long ago that Californians threw out a Democratic governor and installed a Republican,” says Eric Patterson, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

“What does this mean for both the GOP and for Neel? It may make him a viable congressional or even Senate candidate or a gubernatorial candidate in 2018,” says Professor Patterson, who nevertheless disparages the goal of creating a “new Republican” and says Californians are “the real loser in all of this” for not having “a truly competitive, two-party system in the state.”

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