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Neel Kashkari Wins Mud-Wrestling Contest With Tea Party Rival Tim Donnelly

Neel Kashkari
Neel Kashkari
Photo by Ted Soqui

Republican Neel Kashkari came from behind to knock off Tea Party rival Tim Donnelly on Tuesday, edging into the second spot in the top-two primary in the race for California governor. Kashkari, who was backed by most of the Republican establishment and $4 million, will face long odds against incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown in November.

Kashkari has been mud-wrestling with Donnelly for the last several weeks, in a campaign that was bizarrely dominated by Donnelly's insinuation that Kashkari wanted to submit to Shariah banking law. For most of that time, Donnelly had a wide lead in the polls.

Kashkari initially pledged not to self-finance, but he ended up spending $2 million of his own money on a barrage of TV ads and mailers. The underfunded Donnelly was unable to match that effort, and his lead evaporated by Election Day.

Kashkari took 19 percent of the vote, to Donnelly's 14.8 percent. Brown, the Democrat, was well out in front with 54 percent. Donnelly conceded just before midnight.

"This campaign was never about electing one man," Donnelly told his supporters. "This campaign was about each and every one of you. This was a campaign for liberty."

Kashkari wasted little time in turning his fire on Brown, sending out a press release early Wednesday in which he vowed to hold the governor "accountable for the destruction of the middle class."

Kashkari and Donnelly represented competing factions within the Republican Party. Kashkari comes from the pro-business wing, and offered a vision of expanding the party by reaching out to women and minorities and tacking to the center. Donnelly, a former Minuteman, represented the activist grassroots.

That distinction extended to how each candidate ran their campaigns. Kashkari's campaign was run by professional consultants, who crafted a message - "Jobs and Education. That's It." - that seemed based on polling and focus groups.

Donnelly's media consultant quit months ago, leaving him to run the campaign more or less by the seat of his pants. He wrote his own lines and often seemed to improvise his own strategy. He roamed the state on a donated coach bus, calling into conservative radio stations. His voter outreach effort relied on deeply committed volunteers going door-to-door.

As he continued to lead in the polls in recent weeks, GOP elders became increasingly alarmed. If Donnelly were to win the primary, they feared his incendiary views on immigration and other matters would drag down other Republican candidates. Party establishment figures - including Mitt Romeny, Jeb Bush, Pete Wilson and others -  coalesced around Kashkari.

But with all the focus on Donnelly's flaws, some of Kashkari's have been overlooked. His main qualification for office - his handling of the $700 billion bank bailout while serving in the Treasury Department - is also a significant liability.

The USC/L.A. Times poll, which came out over the weekend and predicted the outcome of Tuesday's primary with striking accuracy, also found that Kashkari would fare no better against Brown than would Donnelly. The poll found Brown beating Kashkari 55-27, and beating Donnelly 54-26.