That sound you hear is establishment Republicans exhaling, from Eureka to Yucaipa to Washington, D.C.
By emerging from the primary scrum to face incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown, Neel Kashkari hasn’t greatly shortened the long odds against a Republican winning the California governorship in November. But he has averted the disaster that many in the party feared if Tim Donnelly had become the GOP nominee.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post referred to Neel Kashkari as the first California Republican gubernatorial nominee in modern times who is not a white, Christian male. In 2010, the Republican nominee was Meg Whitman.
It also referred to Tim Donnelly as a congressman. Donnelly is a state assemblyman.
Correctly or not, Donnelly’s undiluted, give-no-quarter conservatism was seen as a toxin that would poison the chances of Republicans up and down the ballot; not just those running for constitutional office — several of whom already face steeply uphill contests — but candidates in some potentially competitive house and legislative races, as well.
The damage, many in the party feared, would linger well past the fall and spread far beyond California's borders.
The state GOP is a wreck, steadily losing hearts and minds since Republican Gov. Pete Wilson won reelection in 1994, thanks in good part to his provocative targeting of illegal immigrants and, later, affirmative action. The incendiary rhetoric sent his party’s reputation up in flames, not just within the growing Latino community but among more moderate white, suburban and young voters as well.
Donnelly picked up where Wilson left off and, on guns and other issues, took the GOP to a much further extreme. The former governor, who is still viewed affectionately within his party, was among those who notably condemned the San Bernardino-area assemblyman, calling him unfit to serve. Behind the scenes, Wilson played an important role in drawing other prominent Republicans to back Kashkari.
Shut out of statewide office, largely impotent in Sacramento and saddled with a retrograde image, the GOP probably faces years of rebuilding in this, the nation’s largest, most important state. (With 55 electoral votes, California, by itself, offers more than one-fifth the total needed to win the White House.)
Kashkari’s candidacy, at the very least, offers the party a place to start.
There is no pigeonholing him as another run-of-the-mill Republican, even if Democrats seek to portray the former banker and Bush administration Treasury official as “Wall Street Neel.” The son of immigrants from Kashmir, with a shaved head and tongue-twister of a last name, Kashkari is hard to stereotype because he’s not stereotypical.
Perhaps most significantly, Kashkari emerged from the primary without toting the usual ideological baggage, including opposition to legal abortion and gay rights, that has sunk so many California Republicans running statewide. (He did highlight the endorsements of Wilson, Mitt Romney and Vista Republican Rep. Darrell Issa in his sole TV spot during the primary, a triumvirate Democrats may conjure for a less receptive general-election audience.)
Clearing the social-issue threshold, Kashkari may get a hearing on other topics; his opposition to the controversial bullet train that Brown wants to build between Los Angeles and San Francisco is likely to be central to Kashkari’s campaign and can’t hurt with fiscally oriented voters of both parties.
From a national perspective, his win marks another triumph for the Republican establishment, which has beat back “tea party” challenges in all but a few races this year.
Along with Wilson and Romney, GOP stalwarts like Karl Rove rallied behind Kashkari’s candidacy, the latter in unusually blunt terms, and the collective weight of their warnings — and Kashkari’s self-funding to the tune of more than $2 million — clearly helped sink Donnelly in the closing days of the campaign.
It is possible Kashkari could defy the odds and defeat Brown in November. Politics, like life itself, is full of surprises.
But merely losing less badly, avoiding further damage to the party’s tattered image and averting a wholesale wipe out up and down the Republican ticket would constitute a victory of sorts.
And California Republicans needs all the wins they can get.