Republican candidates for governor highlight divisions within California GOP

Booze-fueled parties hosted by Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly at the California Republican Party’s biannual convention stretched into the early morning hours Sunday, their supporters dancing in ballrooms within steps of each other at the conference hotel.

Yet the gulf between the two candidates for governor could hardly be wider, and a weekend of campaigning laid bare not only the differences between them, but persistent fissures within the GOP. A vocal, conservative base rallied for Donnelly, the tea party favorite, while Kashkari lobbied a more moderate segment of the electorate, including young Republicans, minorities and the party’s donor and professional class.

“It’s the latest episode of the constant problem you have in the Republican primaries,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, “which is between the country club crowd and the pickup truck crowd … between the candidate who is right at the heart of the Republican Party and emphasizes social issues, versus the candidate who is more electable and focuses on fiscal issues.”

Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, won applause during a speech on the convention floor Sunday. But it was Donnelly for whom the crowd erupted.

“Tim! Tim! Tim!” activists shouted, rising from their seats and waving signs in the air.

The division between moderate and conservative elements of the GOP is a nationwide phenomenon, but is exacerbated in California.

“This is a party that, whether we like it or not, has been in decline for over two decades in this state,” Jim Brulte, the prominent former lawmaker recruited to become chairman of the party, said on Friday. “We have a significant rebuilding operation on our hands.”

Last year, Brulte moved to shift the organization away from ideological disputes, refocusing on fundraising, voter registration and turnout.

But tea party activists also mobilized, building a statewide network and becoming more forceful at conventions. The same Republicans who cheered Donnelly on Sunday sang “God Bless America” in the hotel the previous day, and they marched through the lobby chanting “Taxed enough already.”

Mike Spence, president of the Conservative Republicans of California, said, “This is a place that Kashkari doesn’t understand.”

Neither Donnelly, a Twin Peaks assemblyman, nor Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs executive, is favored to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown in this Democratic-leaning state in which Brown has a huge fundraising advantage. But Republicans are anxious to field a credible candidate in California’s highest-profile race this year.

In speech after speech over the weekend, Kashkari focused heavily on the economy, while Donnelly heralded a unification “under the banner of liberty.” After Kashkari told Latino Republicans he is making Spanish-language media a priority in his campaign, Donnelly told them “we have to stop pandering” to different segments of the electorate.

At a meeting of conservative Republicans, Donnelly, who has the endorsement of the conservative California Republican Assembly, said the GOP needs to “reconnect with the church.” He lamented government regulation and said, “I want my freedom back.”

Kashkari said he had a scheduling conflict and did not attend.

Yet Donnelly’s appeal has significant limitations. Despite the support of fervent activists, many GOP consultants and donors fear Donnelly could set back efforts to reach independents and social moderates should he beat Kashkari in June and advance to a runoff against Brown in the fall.

Donnelly, the Legislature’s most outspoken gun rights and anti-illegal immigration advocate, has relied on a borrowed RV and online videos to promote his candidacy, and he faces ongoing controversy surrounding his own gun use, including pleading no contest to two misdemeanors after carrying a loaded gun into Ontario International Airport in 2012.

Brent Lowder, a former executive director of the state party, has opened an independent expenditure committee to support Kashkari, though it has reported no fundraising yet.

“As a former ED of the party, I get how critical it is to have a credible Republican candidate at the top of the ticket,” he said. “If Donnelly emerges as the Republican to take on Jerry Brown, it would be a step in the wrong direction for the party.”

In addition, Donnelly has raised only about $475,000, less than half what Kashkari has raised.

“Very few people believe that you can wage an effective campaign for governor relying only on a motor home and Facebook ads,” said Jon Fleischman, the prominent conservative blogger. “Tim’s challenge is that there are a lot of people who agree with him on every issue who simply do not believe he’s a viable candidate.”

Kashkari is appealing to many consultants and donors in part because he expresses an awareness of their own party-building concerns.

“We shoot at one another,” Kashkari told delegates Sunday. “The Democrats stand back, they wait until we’re done firing, and then they steamroll us.”

Yet for traditional Republicans, Kashkari is a hard sell. He was vilified at the convention for his management of the federal bank bailout known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and for his vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

Among the tea party activists who marched at the hotel was Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly, who held a sign urging party leaders to “listen to the people.”

She said Donnelly, unlike Kashkari, is “not just spewing forth the party’s talking points,” adding, “We’re not interested in obedient puppets.”

Brulte downplayed divisions between various factions of his party, saying the GOP “has a wide variety of opinions on almost every issue, which doesn’t make it much different than most political parties.”

But the party would have preferred to focus less on the gubernatorial race and the divisions within its ranks. It dismissed a proposal by Donnelly to debate Kashkari and offered speaking spots to the candidates only after requests were made to speak last week. On Sunday, Brulte invited them to the podium only after adjourning the meeting, preventing any effort to endorse either candidate from the floor.

Outside of the convention, some Republicans have turned away entirely from their party’s candidates in the race.

Richard Riordan, a moderate who was defeated in the 2002 gubernatorial primary by a more conservative businessman, Bill Simon, said he senses the party “inching toward the middle” on social issues in the past 12 years.

But the GOP has become no more competitive in statewide races. Riordan said he told Brown about two weeks ago that he is going to support him in the election.

“You know,” Riordan said, “he’s going to win anyway.”

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