This may be the most ho-hum statewide election ever held in California. But there couldn't be more at stake for ailing Republicans. They're teetering on life or death.
Does the state GOP begin the lengthy road back to recovery? Or does it fall into the long sleep?
Or, as research fellow Bill Whalen of Stanford's Hoover Institution puts it, do we keep "watching the bowling ball go down the stairs?" The bowling ball being the tumbling GOP voter registration (now only 28.4% of the electorate) and share of statewide offices (zilch).
Do Republicans pit former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari or Assemblyman Tim Donnelly against popular Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in the November runoff?
Again Whalen: "The sacrificial lamb or mad cow disease."
That's strong stuff. But Whalen has party bona fides as former chief speechwriter for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.
And he's far from alone.
National GOP strategist Karl Rove has warned that a top-of-ticket candidate "prone to the outrageous behavior that [Donnelly] routinely engages in" could tarnish all Republican candidates on the ballot. "Mr. Donnelly is quite prone to sharing the weird recesses and corners of his mind, [and] it could be really problematic for the GOP."
The worry is that Donnelly would suppress Republican turnout, scare Latino Democrats to the polls and dry up money for all GOP candidates.
Alarmed, former Gov. Wilson, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) all have endorsed Kashkari, 40, a moderate running in his first political race.
Issa — one of California's most prominent Republicans and an outspoken conservative — slammed the right-wing Donnelly for attempting to link Kashkari, a Hindu, to fundamentalist Islamic law.
"There is no place in any public discussion for this type of hateful and ignorant garbage," Issa said. "It is crap like this that gives Republicans a bad name."
Donnelly's response was that the GOP establishment is right to feel threatened. "I'm a threat to the country-club Republicans," he said, "because I might bring a little more country into the club."
Donnelly, 48, from Twin Peaks in the San Bernardino Mountains, actually is a pleasant fellow with a sense of humor. Even if he does preach the gun gospel — an armed society is a safer society — and once was nabbed carrying a loaded handgun into Ontario airport.
He also led a volunteer Minuteman unit that hounded Mexicans illegally crossing the border.
"He makes a mockery of the system," Whalen asserts. "He bases his campaign on being outrageous."
There's also this: Even when Californians were electing Republican governors, they were moderates, including Ronald Reagan. The conservative icon's rhetoric was right-wing, but he governed as a centrist: a record tax increase, the nation's most liberal abortion law, arguably the most impressive environmental record ever.
Neither Donnelly nor Kashkari "has a chance of beating Brown," Whalen says, echoing virtually every political observer and poll. "The question is what happens down the ticket. Kashkari would run better."
Unlike some others, however, Whalen doesn't think Donnelly would be permanently fatal to the California GOP.
"It would be just a black eye," he says. "Black eyes go away. But it takes time for a black eye to go away. The Republican Party in California can't be sitting around waiting to recover from black eyes."
But longtime Republican analyst Tony Quinn doesn't believe the state GOP would ever recover from Donnelly heading the party ticket.
"He's going to be an enormous embarrassment," Quinn says, "and Republicans will have to deal with it across the country."
He figures Donnelly, nevertheless, will finish among the top two in the open primary — far behind Brown — and advance to the November runoff. That's because California Republicans, he theorizes, are more in a mood to send a message to politicians than to help their party. And they like a candidate who speaks his mind, no matter how outrageous he might seem to GOP honchos.
"The ideologues will come out and they want to protest," Quinn says. "People simply don't believe the political establishment is doing anything to make their lives better. You have a combination out there of malaise and protest."
And in a low-turnout election — as Tuesday's is expected to be — the ideologues usually dominate.
A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, however, found that Kashkari — with his bigger bankroll for advertising — has moved ahead of Donnelly among likely voters, 18% to 13%. Brown is still miles in front at 50%.
If Donnelly should emerge as the governor's challenger, one veteran GOP strategist intends to lead a "Republicans for Brown" coalition. He's Rob Stutzman, a senior advisor to Republican Meg Whitman's losing campaign against Brown in 2010 and a former chief spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"To be credible in the future, the Republican Party needs to make a stand against Donnelly," Stutzman says. "Our message will be: 'It's OK to split the ticket. Vote for Brown and then for Republicans down the ticket.'"
At least two down-ticket Republicans are given outside chances of winning statewide office in November.
The best odds are with Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who's running for controller. Another conceivable Republican victor is secretary of state candidate Pete Peterson, who heads the Davenport public policy institute at Pepperdine University.
Also at stake for Republicans is legislative relevancy. They'll be trying to win enough seats to prevent Democrats from regaining their supermajorities in both houses.
But to prevail, Republican candidates can't be stumbling around trying to run away from their party's standard bearer.
Kashkari would be ho-hum. But Donnelly could be horrendous — even while helping late-night comics sound hilarious.