California likes to think of itself as the originator and arbiter of all things meaningful. In the low-intensity November election, the cutting-edge quotient has been hard to find. Especially when it comes to the marquee race.
One candidate for governor, the incumbent Democrat Jerry Brown, has barely bothered to campaign or say what he will do if, as expected, he is reelected. He has spent hardly anything in pursuit of his goal. With less than two weeks to go, he decamped to the East for several days to celebrate his law school reunion.
The other, the struggling Republican Neel Kashkari, has flung a succession of Hail Mary passes that, so far, have found no end zone. The most stomach-churning was an ad showing video of an ostensibly drowning child — presumably not meant as a metaphor for his campaign — for which he personally claims credit.
In this mid-term election, as in the last one in 2010, California is like a lone balloon untethered from the national pack, zigging off while much of the country zags. Republicans hold the upper hand in many of the key races nationally, and incumbents are under assault. Not here.
Voters in states like North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa are being smothered by ads — most of them negative—for Senate, governor and congressional races, yet nothing of the sort is happening in most of California.
In North Carolina, spending for the Senate race alone is zooming toward the $100-million mark. In California, Brown has spent less than $4 million this year, almost all of it on behalf of two ballot measures he favors, rather than on his own campaign. Kashkari has spent slightly more than $6 million, much of it to get through the June primary.
But in this admittedly imperfect environment, two connected theories are being tested. One, represented by Brown, is whether California voters are so wedded to their preferences that they will stick with blue-state tradition even in the near-absence of a campaign. The second is whether Republicans can alter long-set voter loyalties by presenting different kinds of candidates who emphasize different issues.
Of particular interest are the independent voters, particularly younger ones, whose numbers are growing markedly in California and across the nation and whose allegiance has hewn to Democrats.
“There’s been a fundamental, foundational realignment that I think is going to sweep across the country: younger independent voters becoming the balance of power,” said Ace Smith, a Brown advisor and veteran Democratic strategist. He added: “Things start in California.”
Kashkari, of course, is presenting himself as exactly the sort of transformational Republican who can attract those voters — neither one of the older white males who have formed the bulk of the GOP’s candidate corps nor the mega-rich celebrity like 2010 nominee Meg Whitman.
Plenty rich on his own, Kashkari has campaigned as a sort of pseudo-Democrat, favoring abortion rights, walking in a gay pride parade, talking about homelessness and poverty. His moves echo those of national candidates like Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who also has made a point of campaigning in black and Latino neighborhoods.
But the way Kashkari has presented himself often has overshadowed his goals.
The drowning child ad, for instance. As a young boy appears to struggle underwater, the words appear: “When kids in failing schools begged Jerry Brown for rescue, HE BETRAYED THEM.” Kashkari reaches into the pool and yanks the child out — no betrayal there — and speaks to the camera. Next to him is the wet boy, head drooping.
Shock value aside, the ad never explained what Kashkari was talking about as he says Brown “betrayed our kids to protect his donors.” To find out he’s upset about Brown’s decision to appeal a judge’s ruling in the Vergara case — a ruling that California’s teacher tenure process violated the rights of students — voters would have had to stumble upon an Internet-only video Kashkari released days later.
“It was my idea … I wanted the most dramatic image I could find,” Kashkari said when asked in an interview about the drowning visuals. “I don’t think the ad goes far enough.” As to the possibility of confusing voters who don’t know Vergara from Viagra, he said, “In 30 seconds you can’t communicate everything.”
That is the flaw so far in Kashkari’s argument that he represents a new path for Republicans: He hasn’t gone out of his way, and his campaign has lacked the money, to explain exactly how he would tackle the issues he’s chosen to highlight. But then, neither has Brown. His campaign, such as it is, consists almost solely of the popular governor pitching the two ballot propositions, one a $7.5-billion water bond measure and the other a state rainy-day fund.
His ads do double-duty, of course, presenting Brown as the prudent leader who has overseen the state’s economic recovery since his 2010 election.
“I’ve been around long enough to know that the pendulum always swings in California — between wet years and drought, between booms and busts, and when it’s bad people get hurt,” Brown says in one ad, rhetorically positioning himself in the center of that pendulum. No drowning children, just a governor highlighting his relative moderation in a state where voters invariably elect the most compelling moderate in the race.