Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown holds a commanding lead in his bid for an unprecedented fourth term, but the race among GOP candidates seeking to take him on in November has become a dead heat just days before Tuesday's election, according to a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll.
Half of Californians deemed likely to vote in the primary supported Brown's reelection. Among his chief challengers, both Republicans, Neel Kashkari was far behind at 18% and Tim Donnelly trailed at 13%. The difference between the two vying for the second slot in the general election was within the poll's margin of error.
Still, Kashkari's position represented a boost from earlier public polling that showed the political neophyte and former Treasury Department official trailing Donnelly, an assemblyman from San Bernardino County. The apparent movement suggested that Kashkari's recent blitz of television ads and glossy mailers was paying dividends.
"It's too close to call, but Kashkari has some momentum going into the final stretch," said Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint, the Republican firm that conducted the poll along with the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. "His spending edge has helped push him into a competitive race."
Among likely Republican voters — the targets of flurries of Kashkari fliers touting his bid and attacking Donnelly — Kashkari led 37% to Donnelly's 23%.
Pollsters cautioned that the race remains highly fluid, a fact underscored by the large number of voters still undecided as Tuesday's election neared. One in 10 likely voters had not settled on a candidate; among likely Republican voters, nearly 1 in 6 was undecided. (The top two finishers, regardless of party, move on to the November election. Brown has no significant Democratic opposition, so the contest for the second slot has focused on the Republicans.)
Glen Haenelt, 26, an oil field supplies salesman who lives in Bakersfield, said he normally votes for fellow Republicans but had not made up his mind this time. Haenelt said he knew one of the candidates was listed on the ballot as a "businessman" but was unsure of his name. (It's Kashkari.)
"To be honest, I don't know anything about the election coming up," Haenelt said. "On a scale of 1 to 10, it's a 1."
Brown's dominance was not surprising given the state's cobalt tilt, but what was notable was the level of support he received from Republicans. Thirty percent of likely GOP primary voters approved of his job performance, and 15% of them planned to vote Tuesday for Brown, a man who has been a nemesis of the California GOP for four decades.
Sacramento resident Pat Pierson, 64, said he was crossing party lines because of the state's improved financial condition.
"I think he's done a pretty good job in helping California get back on top," said Pierson, a retired state printing press operator. "Even though I'm a Republican, I think he's done a fairly good job, and he's done what he said."
Brown commanded enormous support among key segments of voters, including 81% of likely Democratic voters and 62% of likely voters who do not associate with a political party — a growing segment of the California electorate.
Cheryl Kepaa, 63, a Yuba County housewife and nonpartisan voter, said she had already cast her ballot for Brown and cited the high-speed rail project he supports.
"He's far-sighted — a visionary," she said. "Right now, a lot of people are down about the bullet train. But if we don't do things like that, we are going to be considered a Third World nation. But California leads the way, and Gov. Brown has always been a leader."
Among likely voters, Brown led his GOP rivals among every age group, all races, both genders, all income and education levels, and among union and nonunion households, the poll found. Brown handily won the most populous parts of the state — Los Angeles County and the Bay Area — and was competitive in traditionally conservative areas, including the Central Valley.
Brown's dominance was driven by the 58% of likely voters who approved of his performance, the highest level since he took office in 2011. When voters were asked about specific policy areas, Brown's marks dropped somewhat. But Democratic pollster Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner said voters were giving Brown credit for improvements in the state's economy and its budget.
"Nobody thinks the problems are solved, no one thinks education is in a great place, no one thinks the economy is back," he said. But "if you're starting to make progress on core economic issues that are still at the top of every voter's mind, it's natural you're going to get a long leash from them."
Brown's dominance in this year's race has obscured what has become, in recent weeks, a slugfest between Kashkari and Donnelly.
Kashkari has corralled the support of the GOP establishment, including 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. He has raised $2 million and put in $2 million of his own money, far less than is typically spent on gubernatorial primaries in California but enough to allow him to air an ad positioning himself as an outsider, a message that resonates with his supporters.
"I'm trying to get away from the career politicians to see if that will help make some changes actually occur, instead of, they promise all these changes, and then nothing changes," said Diane Corbeil, 43, a Republican from Lodi.
Donnelly has run a shoestring insurgent campaign, traveling the state in an RV emblazoned with his campaign slogan: "Patriot Not Politician." It's a strategy that should not work in a state of 38 million residents, but the passion of his ardent supporters and the fact that Kashkari is not well known has allowed him to remain in contention.
Jon Bamesberger, 60, a Republican who lives in San Bernardino County's Oak Hills, said Donnelly shares his conservative values on guns, immigration and other issues.
Bamesberger, who works at a lawn maintenance company, said he was tired of Republican leaders asking the party's voters to sacrifice their principles and back candidates who supposedly have a better chance of winning a general election.
"We can't keep just voting for the person within our party that the party bosses say is the most electable," he said. "We have to vote for the values that we believe in."
The battle between Kashkari and Donnelly is reflective of an establishment-versus-tea party struggle that is taking place not only in California but across the nation. But the dynamic here is different: though Donnelly has claimed the mantle of the tea party, the poll found that Kashkari is narrowly leading Donnelly among tea party supporters who are likely to vote. (Each of the candidates had a foothold in key Republican voter groups, but neither was swamping his opponent.)
When it comes to November, both Republicans are battling not only Brown but the state's recent electoral history; no GOP candidate has been elected to statewide office since 2006.
So far, this year looks little different. Even among likely primary voters, a group that skews more conservative than the expected November voter pool, Brown was defeating Donnelly 54% to 32% and Kashkari 53% to 35% in general election matchups.
"The reality of the situation is, whichever one of the Republican candidates" is successful on Tuesday "is walking into a pretty steep uphill climb," Lieberman said.
The poll, conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, questioned 1,511 registered voters from May 21 through 28. The margin of error for registered voters was 2.9 points in either direction, for likely voters 4.4 points in either direction, and for subgroups it was higher.