SACRAMENTO (AP) — Neel Kashkari is trying to rewrite the playbook for Republican gubernatorial candidates in California and nudge the party back to relevance after years of declining registration.
Taking a somewhat unusual approach for a Republican candidate, he has focused his campaign on helping the poor and fixing California schools. But he also finds himself in the position of many Republican candidates in a state where they are the decided minority.
The former U.S. Treasury official faces an enormous challenge against the political and fundraising machine of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who has criticized Kashkari for his role leading the national bank bailout. The governor also has highlighted other points on Kashkari’s resume, including his work as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and at the bond investment company Pimco.
Given those ties, it is somewhat unusual that Kashkari is seeking to emphasize income disparity in California, where unemployment has rebounded from the height of the recession but remains at 7.4 percent statewide and is much higher in some areas of the state. Kashkari, an Ohio native who is the son of Indian-American immigrants, says he wants to let voters know that Republicans care about the downtrodden as much as Democrats do and that Democrats’ policies are not helping close the income gap.
“The issues I’m focused on, they’re not Democrat or Republican,” Kashkari said in an interview. “Look at the polling data: A much larger percentage of Californians think we’re headed in the wrong direction than in the right direction. You hear Jerry Brown talk about it, everything’s groovy. And so that’s why I don’t have to go to families and convince them of their struggles. They already know it.”
Kashkari, 41, has never before run for office, one reason his candidacy invokes comparisons to other upstart California Republicans who have had mixed success. Former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman lost to Brown in 2010 despite spending $178.5 million, about $144 million of it from her own fortune. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger parlayed his celebrity status into a win in the gubernatorial recall election in 2003 and served until 2011.
Kashkari does not have Whitman’s war chest or Schwarzenegger’s name recognition, so he has tried unusual tactics to get attention. He posed as a homeless man looking for work in Fresno for a campaign video this summer. He encouraged people to smash toy trains symbolizing Brown’s high-speed rail project in exchange for $25 gas cards at a Southern California service station. And he has been a regular fill-in host on talk radio around the state.
High-speed rail, the $68 billion project that Brown strongly supports, is among many Brown endeavors Kashkari says he would scrap. He also would abandon the governor’s $25 billion plan to build twin tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta to ship water to Southern California, rescind carbon taxes that he says drive up energy costs for working families and overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act, which businesses say impedes development.
Kashkari seems to approach the campaign with zeal despite public opinion polls that show him anywhere from 16 to 21 percentage points behind Brown and about $23 million behind him in fundraising. Campaign finance reports filed to date show Brown’s campaign approaching the $24 million mark and Kashkari with about $1.2 million on hand.
He knows Republicans have an uphill climb in a state where GOP registration has slid to 28 percent and the party has less than a third of the seats in the state Legislature. Kashkari also has had to win over the party base after the June primary, when he came out ahead of a more conservative candidate, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, who has since refused to endorse Kashkari.
Kashkari, who gave up his job at Pimco last year to pursue his bid for office, has said repeatedly that his campaign is as much about rebranding the party as it is about winning in November.
He told fellow Republicans at the state party convention in September that the GOP is the party that fights for the poor and minorities and for the civil rights of all Americans, delivering an impassioned and well-received speech.
His claims that Californians have been hurt by increasing taxes and regulations under the Democratic leadership prompted Brown’s political spokesman, Dan Newman, to say that Kashkari’s rhetoric on the poor does not match his record. He said Kashkari refused to help struggling homeowners or unemployed Californians when he had the chance as a leader of the federal bank bailout.
Brown has signed bills that raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2016 and will give nearly all private-sector workers the chance to have up to three paid sick days a year, which Kashkari said hurts growth and encourages businesses to flee California.
Kashkari said he believes his approach is helping to create a fundamental change in the California GOP.
“There’s probably not a Republican nominee for dog catcher in America who has my profile: son of immigrants, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-immigration, Hindu,” he said in the interview. “I mean, the number of warts I’ve got compared to the traditional checklist, and yet we got through the primary, and now we’ve solidly locked up the Republican base behind me. That’s really cool and I’m proud of that. I think we’re demonstrating a pathway in the future so that Republicans can run on economic issues and get people excited about them.”