Is Neel Kashkari debating Jerry Brown to win, place or merely show?

Is Neel Kashkari debating Jerry Brown to win, place or merely show?
Republican candidate for governor Neel Kashkari, shown at a July news conference, is due to debate Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday at 7 p.m. (Los Angeles Times)

What is Neel Kashkari trying to do, and does it matter?

Kashkari, the Republican candidate challenging three-term Gov. Jerry Brown, the state’s highest profile Democrat, on Thursday night gets his one shot to face Brown in a live televised and streamed debate and his biggest opportunity to make his case for why Brown and the Democratic agenda are the wrong choices, and he and the Republicans are the right ones, for California.

An uphill battle? For Kashkari, it will be more like climbing Mt. Whitney, a couple of times, in the span of an hour. Brown is 20 points ahead in the polls and has presided over an uptick in the state’s economy, the elimination of annual budget crises and a general improvement in the mood of Californians. Many conservative Republican voters rejected Kashkari in the June primary and lined up instead behind tea party-oriented Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Hesperia). Kashkari must now try to reel them in for the Nov. 4 general election — without losing the independents who might otherwise be attracted to his agenda of economic growth and fiscal responsibility.

Anyone trying to understand his strategy has to begin by divining just what it is he's trying to do.


He says he is trying to win, and good for him. But he’s probably not going to. Is he instead positioning himself for a later run at another office? The U.S. Senate, perhaps. Or is he sacrificing himself in order to lay a new path forward for California Republicans?


If he sees himself as offering what amounts to a kind of dissenting opinion that lays the intellectual and political foundation for a future GOP resurgence — either one divorced from more extremist elements in the national Republican Party or reconciled with them — he will be playing for hearts and minds but not necessarily votes in November. He must appeal to the thousands of California Republicans who left the party in despair or disgust and now either sit elections out or vote for the more frugal Democrats. Like Brown. He must sell independents, who now shrug their shoulders and ask what choices they have, on an alternative agenda of fiscal responsibility.


And he will have to deal with the legacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Kashkari has made an issue of high-speed rail, the train that would link Southern California with the Bay Area and, more to the point, connect the San Joaquin Valley and southern Sacramento Valley with the rest of the state. It's a smart move, because criticism of that project fits well into a fiscal responsibility platform that would diminish rather than expand the state's bonded indebtedness and reject large-scale public sector projects in favor of stimulating the market and encouraging private investment.

He can credibly tag Brown with the project, and with reported increases in cost estimates and lowered expectations of its speed and cost-effectiveness, because the train was Brown's brainchild, way back in the 1980s.

The problem is that the project was embraced by Schwarzenegger, the state's most recent Republican governor, who also carried the banner of a new, enlightened, environmentally savvy, California-oriented brand of Republicanism. And it was approved by California voters — on Schwarzenegger's watch.

Then there is the other great Brown construction project, the Bay Delta Conservation Project's twin tunnels, an emotional touchstone for Northern Californians and environmentalists. But there is a hitch there for Kashkari as well; California Republicans, who generally can be expected to oppose big public sector projects, transform into New Dealers when the projects support the state's agriculture industry.

Many Republican lawmakers, for example, support this November's Proposition 1, the water bond that includes $2.7 million in funding for dams. Many support the BDCP as well and, although the tunnel project can be traced back to the original vision of the State Water Project championed by Brown's father, Gov. Pat Brown, and although it is a reinvention of the peripheral canal that was soundly defeated in 1982 by California voters, just before they rejected Jerry Brown's run for the U.S. Senate and seemingly ended his political aspirations, it has gotten to its current stage of planning and promotion because of work put in by Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile, Kashkari must consider the recent history of failed campaigns by Silicon Valley-oriented Republicans who, on paper, were well-positioned to lead a resurgence of a centrist, entrepreneurial, market-oriented but socially liberal California GOP. Steve Poizner was the state’s well-regarded insurance commissioner, its only Republican in statewide office, but his strategy in the June 2010 gubernatorial primary was to run to the right of EBay’s Meg Whitman. It didn’t work — Republican voters chose Whitman, perhaps seeing her as their party’s most viable competitor to Brown. Yet Whitman campaigned poorly. There were no coattails to help Carly Fiorina’s challenge to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer. And conservatives who felt betrayed by Schwarzenegger’s post-partisanship saw little to latch on to.

None of those campaigns of new-style California Republicans laid much groundwork for Kashkari's run. What can Kashkari do to improve the chances for those who come after him?

Focus on public safety? Former Republican Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado focused his campaign on Brown’s handling of court orders to lower the prison population and his realignment program, which pushes many felons from the state prison and parole system to counties. But Maldonado’s campaign — and the issue — never caught fire. Besides, realignment was a program developed largely under the Republican Schwarzenegger.

Kashkari's best bet may be to pick at the flaws in Brown's biggest triumph — 2012's Proposition 30, in which the same Californians who had rejected temporary tax increases under Schwarzenegger instead embraced them.

That move ended, at least for the present and on the surface, the state's budget crisis.

But what structural problems are those tax increases masking? What is the governor's plan for keeping the state solvent when those increases expire toward the end of his term? Has he created a mere respite from the state's roiling fiscal chaos?

And what has Kashkari got to offer as an alternative?

He has his chance to lay it out at 7 p.m. Thursday. The debate is sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco's KQED public radio, Telemundo and the California Channel and will be televised live, aired on radio stations around the state and live-streamed on the Internet. Senior editor John Myers of KQED will moderate. Other panelists include Times editor-at-large Jim Newton.

Follow Robert Greene on Twitter @RGreene2