If there’s one thing Republican Neel Kashkari needed this week to stay in the running for governor of California, it was money.
And he got it. Big donors have started spending more than $650,000 promoting the Laguna Beach newcomer to California politics.
Combined with the $4 million that Kashkari is spending, he’s on track to benefit from nearly 10 times as much money as his top Republican rival, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks.
Still, one critical question haunts Kashkari’s candidacy with the June 3 primary 10 days away: Is it too late?
By Friday, more than 1 million Californians had already cast early ballots, according to Political Data, a voter tracking company. And although the latest polls have found Kashkari gaining support, they also showed Donnelly still ahead.
“Every day that goes by, it gets harder and harder to close the gap,” said Wayne Johnson, a veteran Republican campaign consultant.
Anointed by Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, former Gov. Pete Wilson and other big-name Republicans as the favorite of the GOP establishment, Kashkari is struggling to introduce himself as an appealing alternative to Donnelly, a former Minuteman border-patrol leader with tea party leanings.
Some Kashkari backers take heart from recent Republican U.S. Senate primaries in which tea party insurgents were easily defeated by establishment candidates, a sign that some GOP voters are willing to forgive ideological impurity for the sake of beating Democrats in November.
“When that happens in places like Georgia, Kentucky and Idaho, it’s a sign of what’s happening nationally with the Republican base,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign strategist based in Sacramento. “Does that trend wash into California? I don’t know.”
A key difference in deeply blue California is that few Republicans see any realistic chance of unseating Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat whose overwhelming lead in the polls has been a major impediment to Kashkari’s fundraising.
Even the roughly $5 million that will be spent on Kashkari’s campaign is relatively little for a state as vast as California — enough for minimal TV advertising and targeted mail to GOP primary voters.
Heightening Kashkari’s challenge is a job history that — if widely publicized — some GOP primary voters could find troubling, starting with his stint as a Goldman Sachs investment banker from 2002 to 2006.
Goldman’s role in selling the sort of mortgage securities that sparked the global economic crisis made the firm’s name politically toxic. (Kashkari did no work on mortgage products, his spokeswoman, Jessica Hsiang Ng, said.)
It’s one of the most significant items on Kashkari’s resume, but he rarely talks about it publicly. When he does, it’s quick and vague. “Went into business and finance,” he told listeners on a Shasta County talk radio show Monday as he listed his career highlights.
More challenging, politically, is his role in overseeing the U.S. Treasury Department’s unpopular bank bailout in 2008 and 2009. Kashkari casts the job in a favorable light.
“If we could get the Republicans and Democrats to work together in Washington, then I know we can get them to work together in Sacramento,” he told listeners.
Still, one of the hosts of the conservative talk show asked Kashkari whether he was “one of those Wall Street guys that fleeced the economy and then got a high-level job in the Treasury Department.”
Kashkari chuckled and assured him he wasn’t. The host responded he was glad Kashkari “went to the Treasury Department instead of prison, like they ought to have.”
Also challenging for Kashkari are views that clash with the ideology of many of the conservatives who typically turn out for Republicans in primary elections — his support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Although Donnelly has shied from social issues, apart from his staunch defense of gun rights, he has tried to diminish Kashkari’s support by reminding Republicans not just that he led the bank bailout but that he also voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Yet Donnelly’s dearth of money — he reported just over $70,000 in cash on hand as of a week ago, along with more than $155,000 in unpaid bills — has made it hard for him to define Kashkari in negative terms.
“If Donnelly had any money, it’d be over,” said Johnson, who sees the lawmaker’s inability to afford substantial advertising as one of Kashkari’s biggest advantages.
At the same time, Kashkari has been making the most of his ability to run TV ads and send mail to thousands of voters, stressing his support for lower taxes and spending cuts — key markers for Republicans who know little else about him.
Kashkari has also been increasingly aggressive about trying to define Donnelly as an unelectable extremist who would further harm the California Republican Party’s already damaged brand if he is Brown’s opponent in November.
On KRLA-AM (870) radio on Friday, Kashkari, a Hindu, went after Donnelly for suggesting that he tried to promote Islam at the Treasury Department. “Lunacy on its face,” Kashkari said.
Earlier in the week, Kashkari posted a photo on Twitter that tried to call attention — with sarcasm — to Donnelly’s hard line on immigration. It showed a sign in a hedge, saying, “Protected by Minuteman Security Systems.”
Kashkari’s caption: “Spotted this in OC today. Feeling MUCH safer.”
Those running an independent effort on Kashkari’s behalf are echoing that approach. On Friday, they released a mail ad telling voters, among other things, that Donnelly is on probation for having taken a gun into LA/Ontario International Airport.
Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report.