BURLINGAME, Calif. — The two leading candidates to challenge Gov. Jerry Brown's reelection bid put their clashing brands of conservatism on display Saturday at a state Republican convention where party loyalists conceded their election prospects were bleak this year in California.
At a painfully low point for the state party, Republican gubernatorial rivals Neel Kashkari and Tim Donnelly each tried to convince hundreds of wary activists that they could oust the popular Democratic incumbent.
Kashkari, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker preferred by the party establishment, stressed jobs, education and his heritage as the son of Indian immigrants. He told a group of gay Republicans that he would turn the state party into "the biggest tent you've ever seen in your life."
Donnelly, a state assemblyman from San Bernardino County and former Minuteman border patrol leader, struck a more combative tone as he championed the tenets of the tea party. He told reporters that the IRS and state tax authorities were stockpiling guns, which deeply offended him. (Some tax agents are authorized to carry firearms.)
"They've turned the Franchise Tax Board into the fascist tax board," he said.
The battered confidence of California Republicans also was apparent at the convention hotel on the outskirts of San Francisco, one of the nation's leading Democratic strongholds. Delegates spoke openly about the grim outlook for Republican statewide candidates.
"What you want to try to do is try to avoid a rout and focus on competitive House, Senate and Assembly races," said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state party vice chairman.
In a state where only 29% of voters are Republican, down from 39% in 1990, the party has set a low bar for recovery. One of its top goals for November is not to win control of the Legislature but rather to prevent Democrats from regaining their two-thirds supermajority in the Senate and keeping the one they have in the Assembly.
"We have a significant rebuilding operation on our hands," said state party Chairman Jim Brulte.
A rare bright spot for the party was the election last month of a Republican San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulconer, one of the weekend's star attractions. When the cheering died down at one reception, Faulconer urged Republicans to appeal to Latino, Asian, African American and gay voters.
"When we focus on those principles and issues that unite us, we win," he said in one of many nods to the party's drive to expand its base beyond older white conservative men.
Republicans tried to showcase their Latino, Asian and female candidates, a tacit recognition of two decades of electoral damage caused largely by the party's approach to illegal immigration and social issues.
"We hope to be the new changing face of the Republican Party," said Rudy Mendoza, an Assembly hopeful in the Central Valley. "If we're ever going to change it, it starts right here."
But the main focus was the governor's race. Kashkari, who has never run for public office, tried to reassure party activists that Brown could not portray him as the latest in a series of rich Republicans who dump millions of dollars in personal savings on a doomed run for high office.
"Every time they want to paint me as a rich guy, I'm going to say, 'Look in the mirror, buddy,'" Kashkari, who has said his personal assets total less than $5 million, told an audience of county Republican chairmen. "I didn't inherit millions of dollars from my dad. I'm going to release my taxes. Why aren't you willing to release yours?"
Kashkari supports abortion rights and same-sex marriage, but his support for new offshore oil and gas drilling means he will not have one of the main tools that Republicans have used in California for decades to appeal to moderates on the coast.
The centerpiece of his jobs agenda is to encourage oil and gas drilling in the Central Valley. "As we get that going, we can also look at opportunities offshore," Kashkari said on his way to one meeting.
Donnelly's positions align him more closely with the socially conservative Republicans who dominate the party's conventions, especially those with libertarian leanings. He identifies himself as "pro-life" on abortion and says government should stop sanctioning all marriages and let religious institutions regulate them instead.
Donnelly spoke out against efforts to repeal part of California's law barring the use of race or gender in college admissions. He also pounded Brown for signing legislation to "give driver's licenses to illegals and Dream Acts to give them college tuition."
Standing before a spray of red, white and blue balloons, Donnelly branded Democratic leaders as "Marxist progressives." At tea party and conservative caucus gatherings, Donnelly was awash in cheers. He was miffed, however, when the county party chairmen voted after Kashkari's visit to eject reporters before Donnelly started speaking.
"I think I represent a threat to the political establishment," he told reporters later.
Tom Scott, a delegate to the convention from suburban Sacramento and a Kashkari backer, said Donnelly indeed posed a threat to the party. If Republicans vote in June to put him up against Brown in November, he said, "stick a fork in us — we're done."
"You might as well just hold the inauguration in June," he said, "because Jerry Brown is a strong candidate."