Neel Kashkari's bid for governor challenges Jerry Brown and the Republican Party

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Republican Neel Kashkari's bid for governor was always going to be an uphill battle, but now two polls have him running way behind Democratic incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown, and one survey found that just a quarter of likely voters could even identify Kashkari as a candidate.

So what's driving Kashkari to press ahead? 

The former banker says he wants to win in November. But he may have an ulterior motive: He wants to transform the state's Republican Party, and a high-profile campaign — even a losing one — could provide him with the pulpit to do so.

The Kashkari campaign could provide something of a blueprint for other Republicans who want to run in four or eight years, observers say.
 
"If you’re going to lose, how you lose may set the tenor for the future," said Raphael Sonenshein, who runs the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A. "If, 10 years from now, Republicans started to realize that these are the kinds of the people they need to put up for office, they’ll be a different party, and hard as it is to believe, they’ll start winning elections."

No GOP bench?

The California GOP is a party that could use some help. Just 28 percent of the state’s registered voters identify as Republican. Democrats dominate the state Senate and Assembly. And there are no Republicans in statewide elected office.

"I looked around, and I said someone needs to lead the fight to rebuild the party, to run in California, and I didn’t see a bench. And I said, 'Well, if no one else is going to step up, then I’ll step up to lead that fight,'" Kashkari said in an interview with KPCC. 

Kashkari is Hindu and the son of Indian immigrants, part of a new, more diverse crop of Republican candidates. Republicans haven’t always run candidates who reflect their communities, according to state party vice chair Harmeet Dhillon. 
 
"I think it’s important as a political party to try to run candidates in districts that reflect the values and the composition of that district," Dhillon said. "For example, in Orange County, where you have a lot of Asian immigrants and their descendants, I think it’s important to run candidates who are appealing to that demographic."

Right-leaning Californians often unite around issues like health care and education. But Republicans are also embracing candidates who don’t stick to the party platform. That includes Kashkari, who supports same-sex marriage and abortion rights. 
 
"You are seeing candidates who are being endorsed by the party who have different viewpoints on certain issues than the party platform," Dhillon said.

High-speed rail ... and poverty 

Kashkari is spending the final weeks of the campaign talking about his opposition to high-speed rail. And poverty, which he sees as the root of many of California’s problems.

"I feel like I am demonstrating a path for not just not myself but for other candidates, to unite not just Republicans, but people across the political spectrum," he said.

Still, it's going to be a tough fight this time around.

The USC/Los Angeles Times and Public Policy Institute polls both found Kashkari running 21 points behind Brown. Brown has $24 million in campaign funds, compared to Kashkari's $679,000 in cash. 

And that’s to say nothing of the power of the Brown name after decades in elected office. 
 
"There is — and I hate to make predictions like this because I try to avoid predictions — there is, let us say, zero chance that he will win," Sonenshein said.

Without the resources to get his message out, Kashkari has relied on attention from the press through a variety of stunts.

  • He lived as a homeless man for a week in Fresno to bring attention to issues related to poverty.
  • When the governor was considering the state's ban on plastic bags, Kashkari sent him boxes of paper bags and urged him to veto the ban. (Instead, the governor's dog Sutter sent a message to Kashkari via Twitter.)
  • On a recent afternoon, at a gas station in Burbank, Kashkari reminded voters of his opposition to high-speed rail by handing out gas cards and asking supporters to smash plastic toy trains.  

The stunt drew a few television cameras and supporters, like John King of Westwood. "He has great interpersonal skills. Definitely has the gift of gab. Bright guy and has a lot of great ideas," King said. 

The election is on Nov. 4.

What do you think of Kashkari's chances and his campaign? Let us know in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter (@KPCC).

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