I'm playing to win, and I'm playing to transform the Republican Party and to grow the party, to make people realize that the Republican Party cares about the poor, cares about minorities and cares about California ... that's how I'm judging success. —Neel Kashkari
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Republicans finally have the kind of gubernatorial candidate they need to be competitive in overwhelmingly Democratic California — a young, second-generation social moderate who has financial expertise and is comfortable on social media.
Getting voters to pay attention could be the real challenge.
Gov. Jerry Brown has amassed nearly $23 million and is expected to cruise to re-election after a string of legislative and budget wins. Republican Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official, is fighting for attention and taking an unconventional approach to get it.
The 41-year-old who helped lead the federal bank bailout is highlighting what he says is persistent poverty in a state that also is home to numerous billionaires and a booming technology sector. His creative tactics include posing this summer as a homeless man in Fresno, where he produced a video to spark discussion about the state's uneven economic recovery.
He is offering $40,000 in personally funded college scholarships, has marched in a gay pride parade, spoke at a predominantly African-American church and crashed a teachers union conference where Brown was speaking, tactics not usually associated with Republicans. GOP candidates also typically don't make income inequality a central campaign theme.
"I'm playing to win, and I'm playing to transform the Republican Party and to grow the party, to make people realize that the Republican Party cares about the poor, cares about minorities and cares about California ... that's how I'm judging success," Kashkari said in an interview.
Brown, meanwhile, has been busy governing the state of more than 38 million, recently brokering a $7.5 billion water package and a rainy day fund proposal, both of which are on the November ballot. In 2012, he persuaded voters to approve temporary income and sales tax increases to close a multibillion-dollar deficit. He also has quietly scuttled proposals he does like, many from within his own party.
For the 76-year-old Brown, his final re-election campaign is a role reversal from his first governorship from 1975 to 1983, when he was the unorthodox one.
After occupying many political offices, including secretary of state, attorney general and mayor of Oakland, Brown is now considered a voice of moderation, providing a check to the more liberal impulses of the Democratic majorities in both houses of the state Legislature.
He also is married now. Anne Gust Brown, former counsel to the Gap, is credited with keeping his agenda on track.
"Gov. Brown right now is the backstop for a lot of folks who worry that the Legislature may go a little too wild, so they don't want to do anything to upset the apple cart, to upset the governor," said Joel Fox, publisher of the right-leaning Fox & Hounds blog.
That includes potential Kashkari donors as well as the 1 in 5 California voters who are registered as independent.
"He's been independent enough to convince them to come out for him, so add that to name recognition, being an incumbent and fundraising prowess, and I think you have a very strong incumbent," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles with expertise in state politics.
Public opinion polls after the June primary showed Brown with a 20 percentage point lead over Kashkari, whom he has mostly ignored. He has agreed to one debate, on Sept. 4.
Brown's strongest public opposition has come to his two major infrastructure plans: a $25 billion twin tunnel project under the Northern California Delta and his $68 billion high-speed rail plan, which Kashkari calls "the crazy train."
For Kashkari, a former aerospace engineer-turned-Goldman Sachs banker with no previous political experience, his role in the bank bailout has been a lightning rod for both liberals and conservatives. His campaign notes that the federal government took in $435.8 billion after giving out $422.2 billion.
Dan Newman, a spokesman for Brown, said Kashkari should have given some of that money to the poor if he really wanted to help them. Newman said Kashkari's campaign is not unique, but rather is part of a standard Republican playbook followed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2010 gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
"If you strip away the stunts, take the duct tape off his backpack during his Fresno adventure, his policy prescription was lower taxes on the rich and reduce regulation," Newman said. "It sounded like the same pablum you hear from Schwarzenegger and Whitman and Romney."
A spokeswoman for Kashkari, Mary-Sarah Kinner, said Kashkari has not proposed any tax cuts, for the wealthy or otherwise.