GOP gubernatorial candidates have uphill climb in conservative stronghold

GOP gubernatorial candidates have uphill climb in conservative stronghold
Republican gubernatorial candidates Neel Kashkari, left, and Tim Donnelly shake hands after appearing on the John and Ken show on KFI-AM on May 15. (Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times)

Every weekday morning, the old boys gather out at the airport, inside hangar 51, to gas about matters big and small and give each other the business.

On a recent day the talk ranged from the drought gripping California to New York's new 9/11 museum to the bullet train Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build between Los Angeles and San Francisco.


But a hush fell when the subject turned to the Republicans vying to oust Brown in November.

The eight men eating doughnuts and downing Costco coffee around a plywood table — white, elderly, rural-dwelling, proudly gun-owning — reflect the base of the California Republican Party. Yet even in this GOP stronghold they struggled to name the two leading Republican gubernatorial candidates. Kash-something-or-other, they fumbled, until Merv Hall piped up: "He's the bald-headed one on TV all the time now." That got a laugh.

The other one, Tom, no Tim Donnelly. Isn't he the state senator?

Donnelly is actually a state assemblyman from the San Bernardino area and the nominal front-runner in the Republican race against former banker and U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari. Polls show Donnelly leading Kashkari but neither breaking 20% support statewide, both a vast distance behind Brown. (The top two finishers advance to November's general election, regardless of party.)

Just over a week before Californians go to the polls, the race for governor has captivated few in the country's largest, most important state, voter interest dulled by a mix of satisfaction with the incumbent — even among Republicans, who find Brown better than expected — and a sense of hopelessness among the governor's critics.

"We, as a Republican county, know that our vote is just a spoonful when you talk about the shovelful that's San Francisco and L.A.," said Wayne Mooneyham, 76, a retired airline pilot who sipped his coffee from a Styrofoam cup.

Hall, 82, who used to run Auburn's major tow-truck operation, sadly agreed. "We don't have a prayer to get a Republican in as governor," he said.

Auburn is where the suburbs of Sacramento give out and the gentle foothills start the long, steep climb up the Sierra Nevada. The mix of antique stores and art galleries, historic buildings and the majestic old Placer County courthouse make the quaint town a draw for Gold Country tourists.

The gas stations and fast-food outlets along busy Interstate 80 make it a pit stop for travelers passing between the Bay Area and Lake Tahoe.

The politics here run mostly one way: Republican and conservative. The state's 1st Senate District, which takes in about a quarter of Placer County, is the only one in Northern California where the GOP enjoys a double-digit registration advantage; some call the area Orange County north.

Republican Mitt Romney won only 37% of the statewide vote in the 2012 presidential race but got 58% in Placer County. Republican gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman lost to Brown 54% to 41% statewide in 2010 but carried Placer with 57% of the vote.

Still, with the economy improved and Brown keeping legislative Democrats in check, it's not hard to find praise for the incumbent, even among those who won't vote for him.

Jerry Kopp, 71, has made posters for just about every politician and organization in town, and it's not hard to discern his political leanings even before he volunteers: "I'm an extreme right-winger." There are tea party brochures on the counter of his sign business, and the front window display includes a tombstone marking the death of small business, 1776-2008, due to over-regulation and political correctness, among other things.

Kopp, like many here, considers the bullet train a costly boondoggle. But he praises the budget surplus that has accrued under Brown and the governor's insistence on placing some of the money in reserve and using part to pay down debt. "Maybe they wouldn't even call him a Democrat anymore," Kopp said.


Even so, he plans to vote for "the Indian guy" — Kashkari, the son of immigrants from India — "because most of them I know are pretty good businessmen."

Jim Holmes, a Placer County supervisor, also spoke well of Brown. "He's done a great job holding the line on spending and also with the unions," said Holmes, an independent who left the GOP about seven years ago because he felt the party had gone too far right.

He also plans to vote for Kashkari, for tactical reasons."I want to see the Republican Party come back to the center," said Holmes, who fears that Donnelly's flame-throwing, give-no-quarter conservatism will not only get him walloped in November but further damage the struggling California GOP.

Combined, Donnelly and Kashkari have spent just a small fraction of the tens of millions that candidates typically pour into a race for governor. Kashkari, who has put $2 million of his own money into the race, is the only one airing television ads, a modest flight that may explain his somewhat higher name recognition.

Donnelly is perhaps best known statewide for trying to take a loaded gun through security at the Ontario airport in 2012; it was one of the few facts volunteered more than once in a series of random interviews. He is relying on social media and a strong June 3 turnout by grass-roots conservatives.

Back at hanger 51 — Hall used to own it and kept the rights to meet there as a condition of the sale — Fox News played silently on a large wall-mounted TV as the conversation turned to gun rights.

The topic earned a positive check mark for Donnelly, who has made gun ownership and easing California's restrictions on weapons a centerpiece of his campaign. "If he backs the 2nd Amendment, that's a plus," said Orel Jackson Jr., 78, a retired trash collector with a soft Southern drawl.

"That's one of the rights we hold dear to our hearts, especially in this part of the country," said Mooneyham, the ex-pilot.

But even within this unlikely group there were kind words for Brown.

Donald Anderson said he might even vote for the Democrat, who he likes a whole lot better than the first time Brown was governor, more than two decades ago. "I've been pleasantly surprised," said Anderson, 80. "He's taken on some budget issues."

That produced a rain of catcalls — "Bureaucrat! Bureaucrat!" — aimed at the retired Bureau of Reclamation engineer.

When they quieted down, though, most allowed as how, no, regrettably they didn't expect to see a Republican elected governor again in their lifetime. "I think we have a chance if Northern California can secede," Hall quipped.

Mooneyham, though, was hopeful — just not for this November

"I plan on being here another 10 or 15 years," he said, slyly.