The state Republican Party's fall convention opened on a sour note Friday when the night's keynote speaker acknowledged she might vote to reelect Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, the star of the evening's tribute to Republican women and a candidate for state controller, told reporters she still hadn't made up her mind whether to vote for Brown or Neel Kashkari, his GOP opponent in the Nov. 4 election.
"I'm looking at the two candidates like other Californians are," she said.
Swearengin's refusal to publicly support the leader of the Republican ticket – an extraordinary event for a party gathering just weeks before voting by mail begins – could prove an asset in a state that has strongly favored Democrats over the last two decades.
But it could also embarrass Kashkari, who conceded earlier Friday in remarks to a GOP veterans group that he had "a tough mountain to climb" in his campaign to unseat the popular 76-year-old incumbent governor. Kashkari is far behind in both polls and fundraising.
Another Republican on the statewide ballot, secretary of state candidate Pete Peterson, also refused to say Friday whether he was backing Brown or Kashkari. In an interview, Peterson said he would not endorse any candidate for statewide office, in part because the secretary of state should be an independent administrator of California elections.
Swearengin, after her speech to a few hundred Republican loyalists in a hotel ballroom near Los Angeles International Airport, took questions from reporters in the back of the room.
Asked whether she'd decided to support Kashkari, she responded: "We still have not had a chance to meet, so I've been very focused on my race and getting the word out to voters around the state that I think California needs some independence when it comes to watching the treasury."
Kashkari campaign manager Pat Melton said the gubernatorial hopeful, who is spending three full days at the convention, has been trying since the June primary to set up a meeting with Swearengin, including this weekend, "but she's not been able to meet with us yet."
"Neel continues to enthusiastically support her candidacy and is voting for her," Melton said in an email.
Kashkari also "has really enjoyed campaigning all over the state with Pete Peterson and continues to support him," Melton added.
As Swearengin left the hotel ballroom, she said she did not expect to meet this weekend with Kashkari. "My next stop is my home in Fresno," she said.
As for whether she'll vote for other Republicans on the statewide ballot, she said: "I have endorsed Pete Peterson. He and I got a chance to meet. In fact we met, gosh, probably over a year ago." She said she had not had a chance to meet with some of the others.
Swearengin, who is running against Board of Equalization member Betty Yee, a Democrat, declined to reveal her positions on two of the social issues that sometimes cause trouble for conservative Republicans in California elections: abortion and same-sex marriage.
"I don't anticipate having really any interaction with those issues as state controller," she said. "They are the law of the land, and I would certainly uphold the law of the land."