In the last 10 days, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly has tied his opponent to Islamic law, then backpedaled. He became the only state Assembly member to vote against banning the sale of Confederate flags in state gift shops. With no traditional advertising in California, he put up a billboard in Atlanta.
His opponent, Neel Kashkari, who is Hindu – not Muslim – began distributing literature in which he is pictured gripping an ax. It makes the point, in all capital letters, that despite his liberal social views and vote for Barack Obama in 2008, he is a conservative Republican.
It all made for good theater, if only anyone was watching.
In a state of 38 million people, where gubernatorial races are traditionally run by top-tier politicians with millions of dollars to spend on TV advertising and voter turnout operations, Donnelly and Kashkari are so low profile that, even in their most eventful weeks, they have difficulty making anyone care beyond their Twitter followers and friends on Facebook.
No matter what happens in the June election, after all, neither Republican is expected to beat Gov. Jerry Brown, a popular Democrat, in November. Yet Kashkari and Donnelly sputter on in a race that is becoming increasingly bizarre.
“This is like two very different people in this epic struggle to see who will lose in November,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state GOP executive director. “Because of that, it takes on kind of a Keystone Kop-ish feel.”
The race between Kashkari, a moderate Republican, and Donnelly, a tea party favorite, has been billed for months as a test of the ideological direction of the Republican Party in California. Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official, announced endorsements from former California Gov. Pete Wilson, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But big-name supporters aren’t here rallying with Kashkari. Nor are tea party personalities flying to California to give Donnelly a lift. The race has drawn so little interest that the outcome could just as easily be taken not as a beacon for the party, but as a peculiarity.
“Neither Republican is a marquee figure,” said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at Stanford University. “There’s no glitz factor. There’s just nothing there.”
Yet Donnelly and Kashkari keep fighting like there is. Kashkari, who trails Donnelly badly in public opinion polls, recently dropped $1 million into his campaign and began airing TV ads in what is likely to be a limited statewide run. He also put up an attack website intended to drag Donnelly down.
Its BuzzFeed-inspired headline: “9 Reasons Why Tim Donnelly Would be a REALLY Bad Choice.”
Donnelly, an assemblyman from Twin Peaks, busied himself online, as well, with his campaign posting social media messages connecting Kashkari to Shariah law. The basis for Donnelly’s claim was a program for an “Islamic Finance 101” seminar at the Treasury Department in 2008, when Kashkari was a senior Treasury official.
Kashkari was listed as providing opening remarks for the seminar, the purpose of which was described as helping “inform the policy community about Islamic financial services, which are an increasingly important part of the global financial industry.”
This was not a debate about education or the environment or the economy, and wasn’t happening on network TV. Instead, Donnelly bickered with a Kashkari adviser, Aaron McLear, on a conservative talk radio show in the not-so-conservative Santa Cruz media market about what Donnelly had or had not said on Twitter about a seminar Kashkari was involved in six years ago.
“Wow,” said the radio show host, who refers to herself only as Georgia. “I don’t know what to say here to both of you.”
For Donnelly and Kashkari, the most significant thing is that she said their names. Likely voters in a primary election are typically some of the most engaged members of the electorate. But according to the most recent Field Poll, in April, half of likely voters still have no opinion of Donnelly, and nearly two-thirds of likely voters have no opinion of Kashkari.
Of the overall sleepiness of the race, Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist, said, “I think this is unprecedented for a governor’s race in any type of modern context.”
California is so large it has become accustomed to its cultural and political winds blowing over into other states. Four years ago, Republican billionaire Meg Whitman, who lost to Brown, gained national attention for her business credentials, her former housekeeper’s immigration status and for the record sums she spent on the campaign.
This year, said Eric Herzik, a political science professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, just across the border from California, “No, your race hasn’t spilled over here.”
In Georgia, where Donnelly was born and said he has “connections,” the effect of a campaign billboard was likely minimal. Donnelly said his digital display in Atlanta was only “up for a short period of time to get media attention.”
This week, the billboard was down and Kashkari and Donnelly were preparing for one of the biggest nights of the campaign, the only scheduled debate ahead of the June 3 primary election.
For 90 minutes Thursday, Donnelly and Kashkari will debate at the Ayres Hotel Anaheim, in a live broadcast of “The John and Ken Show,” a conservative program on KFI AM 640 in Los Angeles.
“Anytime you’re live on KFI,” Donnelly said, “of course that’s going to be a big moment.”