Neel Kashkari gets a boost from New Jersey's Christie

Neel Kashkari gets a boost from New Jersey's Christie
Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari has a daunting path ahead in his bid to unseat California Gov. Jerry Brown. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

As Neel Kashkari enters the general-election campaign against Gov. Jerry Brown, he has two critical priorities this summer: raising money from donors who are skeptical that he can defeat the popular incumbent, and uniting the state's Republican voters, some of whom are hostile toward the former U.S. Treasury official.

Both are daunting challenges, but the GOP gubernatorial candidate was buoyed Friday by in-person support from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who said he faced similar obstacles in his Democratic-leaning state when he first ran for office.

"No one thought I was going to win in 2009. It's in a blue state, 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans. We hadn't had a Republican elected statewide in a dozen years — a lot of things that you see that are very similar to what's happening in California right now," Christie told reporters after touring a flower warehouse in San Francisco with Kashkari.

"But I'm out here to support Neel to let him know it can happen, but what you have to do is reach out to everybody, and I think Republicans will unite … behind him," Christie said.


Christie's public appearance with Kashkari was the first by a major GOP figure, though Kashkari received endorsements and other support during the primary.

The question is whether it will translate into anything more in a year when many Republicans have abandoned hope of taking back the governor's office.

"Barring an event that dramatically changes the plane that this race is on, Brown will continue to be perceived as inevitable," said Rob Stutzman, a former advisor to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and 2010 GOP nominee Meg Whitman, adding that Kashkari's underdog status could be freeing.

"He's got nothing to lose, so he should go out and be the candidate he wants to be at his core. I think he'll be pretty good at it. [But] money will be a problem in the fall," Stutzman added.

Kashkari, who spent much of the spring courting the GOP voters most likely to turn out during the primary, said he would return his focus to what he did in 2013 as he was exploring a run — visiting minority communities and others that don't traditionally back Republicans. On Sunday, he will speak at a Pentecostal church in South Los Angeles.

He said his jobs and education agenda is one that could appeal to moderate Democrats, independents and the conservative Republicans who disagree with him on social policy.

"My agenda is not a partisan agenda, it's an agenda everyone can get behind," he said in an interview Friday.

At the same time, Kashkari has been aggressively wooing conservative activists since besting Assemblyman Tim Donnelly in the primary last week. In his first campaign event after the primary, Kashkari addressed Republican party activists in San Diego, where he received a warm — though not exuberant — reception.

Donnelly has declined to back Kashkari, and some of his supporters remain openly wary of Kashkari because of his moderate social views, his role leading the Wall Street bailout and his 2008 vote for President Obama.

All those factors disqualify Kashkari, said Celeste Greig, immediate past president of the California Republican Assembly. The 67-year-old Northridge resident and Donnelly supporter said she could not stomach voting for Kashkari in the fall.

"You want me to prostitute myself and if yesterday I believe in something, today I turn around and disregard those beliefs and principles?" she asked. "I'm not voting for Brown [or Kashkari] because there is no difference."

One difference is bank balances — Brown has $21 million in campaign funds. Kashkari enters the general election broke, after spending $4.2 million to win the primary, half of it his own money. He struggled to raise funds and tapped 40% of his stated net worth. Many traditional GOP donors sat on the sidelines, and some donated to Brown, either appreciative of his work righting the state's finances or confident that he would be reelected.

Kashkari, who has said it would take "tens of millions of dollars" to compete with Brown in the fall, said he was optimistic that his fundraising ability would improve since he made it out of the primary.

"We're putting together an aggressive fundraising schedule," he said.

But many potential donors remain skeptical, saying much of the money that went Kashkari's way in the primary was from donors who feared that Donnelly, a former Minuteman border patrol leader known for controversial statements, would represent the GOP in the fall.

"It was very much anti-Donnelly — that's what it was all about. I don't know what will happen. I would be doubtful," said a Republican political consultant, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid alienating major donors. "One of the problems you've seen is this is the first time in modern California history that the Republican candidate for governor is given no chance to win."

Donors "want to put money where they think it's most effective and that's congressional and legislative and, frankly, [U.S.] Senate races outside of California," the consultant said.

Indeed, when Christie was asked whether the Republican Governors Assn., which he leads, would donate to Kashkari's effort, the New Jersey governor suggested that it would only if Kashkari could make the race competitive.

"Each race is up to the individual candidate, and what the RGA can do is when we have a close race, we could be the folks who push that person over the finish line," Christie said. "He's got work to do, he knows he's got work to do."

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak in San Francisco and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.