Neel Kashkari

Neel Kashkari, shown meeting with reporters in March, has spent $2 million of his own money on his campaign for governor, but he trails his Republican rival in the polls. (Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle)

Carla Marinucci
Updated 10:43 pm, Monday, May 26, 2014

Sharp divisions between the GOP’s “country club” establishment and its rough-around-the-edges Tea Party activists have been exposed in the California governor’s contest, where the race for second place pits an ex-investment banker – who’s dropped $2 million of his own money on the campaign – against a fiery former plastics salesman whose chief campaign assets are an iPhone and a car with 370,000 miles on it.

GOP mainstream leaders leave no doubt they think a June 3 primary victory by the ex-salesman – Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, 48, who founded a self-styled border patrol group called the California Minutemen and makes gun rights one of his signature issues – would be a disaster for the California party.

They’ve lined up behind millionaire former Goldman Sachs vice president Neel Kashkari. The 40-year-old, first-time candidate ran the federal bank bailout known as TARP – the Troubled Asset Relief Program – as a Treasury official, favors abortion access and same-sex marriage rights, and even admits to voting for Barack Obama in 2008.

Despite endorsements from party luminaries like former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, Kashkari is lagging in the polls behind the San Bernardino County legislator, whose supporters tend to favor not wingtips but black “Got Liberty?” T-shirts.

Going all in

With many Californians already voting by mail, Kashkari abandoned his pledge not to self-fund his campaign and plunged an estimated 40 percent of his net worth into his challenge against Gov. Jerry Brown, who is all but certain to finish first in the primary. The top two finishers will meet again in the November general election.

Kashkari’s pragmatic call for “Jobs and Education: That’s it!” has attracted a team of seasoned consultants. He’s also gotten independent expenditure help from a host of wealthy friends, including Republican mega-donor Charles Munger, who has put in $350,000 to help introduce Kashkari to voters with mailers and TV spots.

Donnelly, operating on a shoestring, has plenty of passion and no such patrons. But as he crisscrosses the state in 18-hour days in that well-worn 2002 Toyota Sequoia, he’s produced plenty of headlines that put party leaders in a sweat.

There was a post on Donnelly’s Facebook page suggesting that Kashkari, a Hindu, supported Islamic Sharia law. When a newspaper dug up a 2006 speech to anti-illegal-immigration Minutemen in which he referred approvingly to the number of Mexicans killed at the Alamo, Donnelly was anything but apologetic, saying, “People will respect you if you stick to your guns.”

Speaking of guns, Donnelly is still trying to explain a 2012 conviction for trying to bring a loaded handgun onto a plane. He says he forgot it was in his carry-on bag.

View from the bottom

The campaign’s lone debate between the two Republican candidates, hosted by a pair of Southern California radio shock jocks before a full-throated audience of conservative activists – complete with an effigy of Brown – horrified some political observers.

“This is what the bottom looks like,” said Hoover Institution fellow Bill Whalen, speaking of his party’s prospects.

“Nobody who takes a sober assessment of the governor’s race seriously believes Jerry Brown can be defeated,” Whalen said. “This is not about 2014 so much as it is 2018,” when Brown, at age 80, will likely be finishing his fourth term and the governor’s job will be up for grabs.

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