SACRAMENTO — Fifty years ago, Republicans across America fought a titanic civil war for ideological supremacy. The decisive battleground was California. Conservatives won, and the party turned rightward.
It has veered in that direction ever since, especially in California, where Republicans have been battered bucking the natural blue tide.
There have been a few exceptions, most notably when the party followed the centrist Arnold Schwarzenegger. But GOP activists never really accepted him.
Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's stunning victory over New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 California presidential primary was an earthquake that dramatically altered the state's political landscape.
Now half a century later, there's a much smaller skirmish brewing that will determine the GOP standard-bearer for the fall gubernatorial election.
Nobody I've heard about truly believes either Republican contender has a prayer of beating Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
But the outcome of the June primary election could well mark a turning point for the California GOP, not unlike the Goldwater-Rockefeller brawl. One direction could lead to a dead end and party oblivion, another toward the center and expanded possibilities.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to equate the historic figures Goldwater and Rockefeller with Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari. Who?
But Donnelly vs. Kashkari is important simply because the party has sunk that far. These apparently are the best the California GOP can muster as gubernatorial candidates.
No Republican has been elected to statewide office since 2006. Democrats hold a supermajority in the Legislature and outnumber the GOP in the U.S. House delegation 38 to 15. GOP voter registration in California has fallen to under 29%, while the Democrats are at nearly 44%.
The Republican brand name isn't selling. And it could be affected — negatively or positively — by who leads the party ticket in November. So could the fates of GOP candidates for lower office.
Donnelly, 47, is a state assemblyman from the Lake Arrowhead area, an unabashed conservative and tea party favorite who founded a Minuteman border patrol chapter.
He's best known for being nabbed toting a loaded handgun in a carry-on bag while trying to board a plane at Ontario airport.
His stands on so-called social issues — immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, guns — resonate with the hard right but don't reflect the views of most California voters.
Kashkari has said that if the GOP had "a deep bench of really talented people" seeking the governorship "I wouldn't be doing this. Since we don't have that bench, I feel like I have to go do this."
Spare me the politicians' common claim of self-sacrifice. Just say you'd like to be governor.
But Kashkari is absolutely correct about one thing: The absence of a strong Republican candidate opens the door for him and makes his bid especially important.
Kashkari, 40, is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from India. An investment banker and former U.S. Treasury official, he was the federal bailout czar who headed the $700-billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
Unpopular TARP may be political baggage. For Republicans, so is the fact Kashkari voted for Barack Obama in 2008, although he now criticizes the president. "His stimulus program was probably the most poorly designed piece of economic policy in American history," Kashkari told me.
The multimillionaire, who lives in Laguna Beach, calls himself a pro-growth conservative on fiscal issues and a social libertarian who supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
"I just want the government out of our lives," he says. "You decide what's best for you and your family. I respect the fact that people have passionate views on both sides" of the marriage and abortion issues. "I just don't want anyone imposing their view on somebody else."
His emphasis, however, is on "breaking the cycle of poverty" by creating jobs — he advocates oil fracking — and improving education.
But "just pouring more money into a failing schools system is like pouring more water into a leaking bucket," he says. "You actually have to fix the bucket." That means more flexibility for teachers and principals.
Kashkari thinks Brown's bullet-train idea is "crazy" — "I mean, with all the priorities we have in our cities…"
He'd also "slow down" trying to burrow two gigantic tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta and focus on developing more water storage — "the no-brainer."
"Gov. Brown is an honorable man," he says. "But he seems to be lazy. He doesn't want to do the hard work."
Unfortunately, like too many wannabe governors — Republicans Meg Whitman and Bill Simon, for example — Kashkari insists on starting at the top. He seems to feel running for a lower office and working his way up is beneath him. But, hey, no other Republican is running against Donnelly.
Unlike Whitman and Simon, however, Kashkari doesn't have enough wealth to finance his own campaign.
"No question we'll be outgunned by Gov. Brown," he says. "But I believe we can raise enough to be credible.
"A lot of donors feel Brown will be extremely hard to defeat. But when I say we can remake the Republican Party and resurrect it, people say they want to do that because we've lost our way."
Stu Spencer, who was Rockefeller's chief California strategist 50 years ago — and later Ronald Reagan's — says of Kashkari: "I don't know the guy from Adam.
"But they should fight the damn thing out. You're not going to beat Jerry Brown, but this could be a redefining bloodbath that moves the party one way or the other."
That's what will be at stake in the June primary: the face of the Republican Party in California.