Shortly after announcing his candidacy for governor Tuesday, Neel Kashkari sat alone in his political adviser’s Sacramento offices, calling donors for several hours on the phone.
It may be a difficult audience to reach. Less than five months before the June primary election, California’s Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, has raised more than $17 million, and the fundraising landscape has tilted so far in his favor it has come to define the initial stages of the campaign.
Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, said as he announced his candidacy that he will focus on education and the economy.
“That’s my platform: Jobs and education,” Kashkari said at a business luncheon at California State University, Sacramento. “Jobs and education. That’s it. That’s why I’m running for governor.”
His platform could appeal to many moderate Republicans, but Kashkari’s ability to raise sufficient money to broadcast it statewide is uncertain.
Not only is Brown collecting millions of dollars from labor unions and other liberal allies, but his relatively moderate fiscal and environmental polices have endeared him to business interests on which GOP candidates could once rely. With the third-term governor heavily favored to win re-election, potential donors – many of them with business before the state – may not risk upsetting Brown by giving to any Republican in the race.
“The reality is that Governor Brown is the thin red line for the business community between the Legislature and a lot of craziness,” said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. “So they don’t want to offend him unnecessarily.”
Former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, once considered the likeliest Republican to advance to a November runoff against Brown, dropped out of the race last week, having failed for nearly two months to collect a single major contribution.
The only other Republican actively campaigning against Brown, Twin Peaks Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, has reported raising about $200,000.
Kashkari’s entrance into the contest was widely expected. The former Goldman Sachs executive left his job at Newport Beach-based Pacific Investment Management Co. a year ago, hired political advisers and spent recent months meeting with potential donors and giving newspaper interviews.
Kashkari, of Orange County, has never before run for elected office and has put his net worth at less than $5 million, not enough to self-finance a campaign.
Yet he may have Wall Street contacts on the East Coast that other Republicans lack. Kashkari, 40, ran the $700 billion bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program during former President George W. Bush’s administration.
“There’s money to raise,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist. “Kashkari supposedly has a base of donors that most candidates wouldn’t have, and I think if he is able to access that and actually raise money from it, and no one else gets in this race, then I think you’ll see traditional Republican donors want to participate with him.”
Said Stutzman: “There really isn’t an alternative.”
Donnelly is the Legislature’s most outspoken advocate for gun rights and against illegal immigration, and many Republican donors fear he could damage the GOP’s already-weak standing with Latino voters.
But Donnelly is a tea party favorite, and Kashkari has a record tough to sell to the conservative wing of the GOP. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
On Tuesday, Kashkari joined a long list of Republicans critical of California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project, which Brown has made a priority of his administration. Kashkari called it a “crazy train.”
Like other Republicans, Kashkari also complained about California’s high poverty rate. Last fall, the U.S. Census Bureau reported a poverty rate in California of 23.8 percent, using an alternative calculation that includes cost of living.
“The status quo is unacceptable,” Kashkari said.
Brown, who will deliver his annual State of the State address at the Capitol today, has not yet said if he will seek re-election, but he is widely expected to run. Democrats painted Kashkari as a wealthy product of the private sector who had little interest in California politics before deciding to run for governor.
Dan Newman, a political spokesman for Brown, said in an email that “it’s hard to imagine why someone with such a thin résumé thinks he’s qualified to be governor.”
Donnelly, meanwhile, said Tuesday that his fundraising effort has “definitely turned a corner,” but he pointed to his recent attention surrounding an online video as evidence a candidate can distribute his or her message without paying for ads on TV.
The video, starring Maria Conchita Alonso, resulted in backlash against the actress by some Latinos for her support of Donnelly, and the controversy was covered on TV.
As for Kashkari, Donnelly said, “I just don’t see how the guy gets any traction.”
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar said he is not backing any gubernatorial candidate “at this point,” but he suggested the importance of fundraising may be overstated.
“The real question is do the ideas that he has catch fire with the voters?” he said, adding that if the candidate’s message resonates with voters, “the money will sort itself out.”