In their first, and probably only, debate, GOP gubernatorial hopefuls Tim Donnelly and Neel Kashkari sparred Thursday over who would be most likely to beat incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown, in the process exposing deep divisions over the direction of the state’s Republican Party.
The approximately 90-minute event, moderated by the hosts of KFI AM 640’s conservative radio program “The John and Ken Show,” hit on a wide range of topics, from gun rights to Kasharki’s tenure at the U.S. Treasury Department.
A fake skeleton played the role of Brown, underscoring the governor’s absence. But his name was invoked constantly by both Donnelly and Kashkari, who said Brown’s policies had stagnated the state’s growth.
But the biggest fireworks came in squabbling over the contenders’ electability.
Kashkari, a former Treasury official, sought to portray Donnelly, an assemblyman from San Bernardino County, as damaging to the GOP brand and played up his own support from establishment figures including 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista).
“The reason so many people have come out and endorsed me — it’s partly because they like me, but it’s partly because they’re really worried about the Republican Party,” Kashkari said.
Kashkari accused his opponent of having "managed to denigrate Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus,” prompting loud boos from the mostly pro-Donnelly crowd. Kashkari warned that if Republicans alienated those groups, “we are not going to win another election, period.”
Donnelly, who has been leading Kashkari in public opinion polls, brushed off accusations of racial insensitivity: “The only colors I care about are red, white and blue."
But he did not back away from his attempts to link Kashkari to Islamic law, or sharia, noting that while at the Treasury, Kashkari participated in a conference on understanding the Islamic code. The contention has drawn rebuke from Issa and former Gov. Pete Wilson as racist.
“Given how barbaric sharia law is, why would we want to be compliant with anything sharia?” Donnelly asked.
Kashkari responded that Donnelly’s suggestion that President George W. Bush, who was in office at the time of the conference, would want to bring sharia law to the state is “outrageous, offensive and you should be ashamed."
Donnelly painted Kashkari’s supporters as out-of-touch, declaring “we need to bring a lot more country into the country club.” Running a shoestring campaign, Donnelly said his campaign is powered by grassroots support.
The assemblyman was the clear favorite for the live audience at the Ayres Hotel in Anaheim, where the debate was broadcast. Supporters clad in Donnelly-branded “got liberty?” T-shirts were in place hours before the debate began.
Kashkari, looking to shore up his conservative bona fides, challenged Donnelly on a recent bill the assemblyman introduced that would transfer the authority to issue permits to carry concealed weapons from local sheriffs to the attorney general’s office.
“I don’t trust [Atty. General] Kamala Harris with our gun rights,” Kashkari said, which elicited a bemused response from Donnelly, who has made gun rights a centerpiece of his political career.
“Were you calling me weak on the 2nd Amendment? This is a first,” Donnelly responded.
7:30 p.m.: This story was updated throughout after the debate. Melanie Mason wrote this version; Seema Mehta wrote the earlier version.Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times