With the election nearly three months behind them, top aides to Gov. Jerry Brown and his Republican challenger, Neel Kashkari, let down their guard Saturday at a postmortem organized by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies.
In a candid back-and-forth, they shared behind-the-scenes recollections of how Brown coasted to reelection and trounced Kashkari, 60% to 40%.
Neither candidate always listened to the aides. Brown suggested a whistle-stop train trip across California in his campaign for reelection. “We said that was a bad idea,” said Dana Williamson, the Democratic governor’s cabinet secretary.
Kashkari ignored the advice of advisors who urged him to stop dipping into his waning personal fortune to finance a campaign they knew he could not win. “We thought it was crazy, but that’s Neel,” said Aaron McLear, a top Kashkari strategist.
A first-time candidate for elective office, Kashkari got into the race because he’d had a taste of public life as the U.S. Treasury Department’s point man on the 2008 bank bailout -- and wanted more, McLear said.
“I think he missed kind of the rush he got from Treasury,” McLear said.
The candidate's campaign’s cornerstone was “authenticity,” because Kashkari thought Republicans Meg Whitman, Brown’s GOP rival in 2010, and 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney “didn’t come across as sincere and genuine,” McLear said.
But by last spring, Kashkari, a moderate, was in danger of losing the primary to tea party sympathizer Tim Donnelly, then a GOP state assemblyman from the Lake Arrowhead area. So Kashkari started dumping what would eventually be $3.1 million of his own money into the race.
Karl Rove, Romney and other Republicans feared Donnelly would damage the party’s prospects across the nation. Wealthy donors stepped up to run an independent campaign in support of Kashkari.
They didn't want Donnelly "carrying the flag for Republicans,” McLear said.
Kashkari squeaked through the primary, but polls suggested his prospects after that were hopeless. “We always knew that we’d have to catch 100 breaks to beat Gov. Brown,” McLear said.
Brown’s strategy was to ignore Kashkari and let his own record on the budget, immigration issues and other matters speak for itself, Williamson said. She described Brown's effort as a “non-campaign.” “That didn’t happen by accident,” she said.
Ace Smith, Brown’s top campaign strategist, scoffed at what he called Kashkari campaign “stunts.” For a rich former Goldman Sachs banker like Kashkari to pose on the streets of Fresno as a homeless person to highlight his poverty agenda was as authentic as Smith, who is nearly bald, showing up on stage in a toupee, the strategist said.
“I’m not saying there’s a no-stunt policy,” Smith said. “You’ve just got to do stunts that are believable.”
Smith suggested that Brown’s campaign last fall for ballot measures on water projects and state finances, rather than a traditional reelection effort, was a model for future elections, with candidates minimizing themselves and highlighting policies that advance the public interest.
As for Kashkari, McLear said: “Right now he’s looking for a job, because he doesn’t have any money left.”