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Doug Lasken

Governor 2014 Debate: Neel Kashkari’s last chance to beat Jerry Brown?

Doug Lasken

The good news for Neel Kashkari, GOP candidate for CA governor against incumbent Jerry Brown, is that he has shrunk Brown’s lead from 20 points after the June 3 primary (http://www.latimes.com/local/political/la-me-pc-brown-kashkari-field-poll-20140625-story.html) to 16 points as of September 4 (http://www.breitbart.com/Breitbart-California/2014/09/04/Brown-Lead-Over-Kashkari-Shrinks-to-16-Points). The bad news is that no political watchers anywhere expect Kashkari to win.

Kashkari deserves credit for the four-point improvement, as it likely derives from his forceful campaigning. In early July, Kashkari stood outside the American Federation of Teachers convention in Los Angeles and challenged the AFT and Brown to respond to the Vergara ruling in CA, which found that teacher tenure rules are permitting substandard teachers to stay in the classroom, particularly in underserved communities. Kashkari correctly calculated that Brown, who is beholden to teachers unions for cash and campaign support, would be unable to respond, and he garnered one or two days of press on the issue. Kashkari, smartly distancing himself from unpopular social positions espoused by the Tea Party, marched in San Diego’s LGBT Pride Parade on July 19, resulting in a few articles. Kashkari also played the role of a homeless man in Fresno for a week, to highlight Brown’s culpability in the continuing plight of the unemployed and homeless. This move did not have the clarity of purpose of the AFT challenge or the LGBT parade, mainly because most people don’t see Brown as uncaring towards the poor, and it was unclear what meaning Kashkari’s artificially induced suffering was meant to convey. Still, anything that puts Kashkari in the news- and the homeless gambit made news for a few days- is helpful to him.

One of Kashkari’s worthy ideas was a series of 10 televised debates with Brown. For strategic reasons (i.e., the less Brown appears in public to campaign for re-election, the less people care about the election and the more they forget Kashkari) Brown agreed to only one debate, which took place on Sept. 4, the same day as the Field Poll showing the 4 point Kashkari gain.

The debate, televised on public access channels on the same night as a the Seattle-Green Bay football game, was little watched and produced, on its own, little or no buzz in the community, but it did merit at least a few days of fairly positive press for Kashkari before returning him to obscurity (even Meg Whitman, who lost to Brown in the last election, got more sustained press than Kashkari).

It’s a bit early to declare that Brown’s 16% lead will not be further diminished by last week’s debate, but it is not too early to find that Brown successfully minimized its impact. A Google scan of today’s California news (Sunday, 9/7), just three days after the debate, reveals not one article about the debate or the campaign. I did find one article on the debate and campaign in my hard-copy of the L.A. Times (there’s no link because it’s not online), titled, “Brown still on top after debate,” which states flatly: “Nothing occurred Thursday night that appeared to have altered the profile of the race, which appears frozen barring an epic Brown failure or a monumental Kashkari surge.” After such an obituary, and the silence in the rest of the CA media, it’s safe to say that the debate and the Kashkari/Brown race are no longer news. In the remaining 8 weeks before the election, though Kashkari may be able to knock a few more points off Brown’s lead, it seems unlikely that he will be able to overcome the momentum (and inertia) in Brown’s favor.

What, then, is Kashkari’s problem? As I wrote in Flashreport on July 22 (“Neel Kashkari: Candidate without a party,” http://www.flashreport.org/blog/2014/07/22/neel-kahskari-a-candidate-without-a-party/), Kashari’s challenge is that he is identified with the GOP, and thus with the Tea Party, since the typical voter associates the GOP, state and national, with Tea Party positions. Those positions were brought center stage in the last presidential primaries by Republican Rick Santorum, who opined that abortion doctors should be tried for murder, that homosexuality is a sin hated by God, and that the separation of church and state was not intended by the Founders. Whatever the reader’s own views on such positions, the broader electorate is not fond of them: fully 70% of voters not only disagrees with Santorum, but disagrees intensely, so that any candidate who espouses such positions is dead in the water. Santorum’s successful rival for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney, made the mistake of keeping quiet on the Tea Party social agenda- hoping to retain the 30% who espouse it- but the strategy backfired as the 70% flocked to Obama.

Kashkari saw the problem coming and correctly analyzed it before the June 3 primary by coming out in favor of gay marriage and a sensible, nuanced policy on abortion. His win in the primary against far-right candidate Tim Donnelly, beating him 19% to 15%, proved that even within the GOP support for far-right social positions is weak.

No doubt Kashkari’s four-point improvement against Brown comes as much from his centrist social positions as his attacks on teacher tenure and rapid rail, but clearly this is not enough to ensure a Kashkari victory in November. The GOP is indelibly associated in the electorate’s minds with far-right social positions; in other words, the GOP is seen as beholden to the Tea Party. It does not matter whether that association is fair or not- this is what voters think, and that’s all that matters. In California, where the GOP is on life-support- in effect becoming a party for rural candidates and apparently abandoning forever the idea of winning statewide office- 7 in 10 voters are Democratic. That leaves 70% of CA’s electorate loyal to the Democratic brand. Kashkari, no matter how popular some of his positions, cannot overcome this stacked deck, any more than Romney could.

What would remedy this situation? The only move that could possibly change the state and national equation for the GOP would be a forceful and prominent rejection of far-right social positions. There is precedent for such action, as when the Democrats saved their party from extinction during Ronald Reagan’s popular presidency by creating the Democratic Leadership Council, headed by Bill Clinton (whose future it ensured), which pulled the party to the right, publicly clashing with prominent liberals like Jesse Jackson in the process (the public quarrels were part of the strategy of self-definition). The GOP should look into such a strategy.

The Republican Party is an established institution, and as such it cannot be expected to easily renew itself. Established institutions do not like radical change, since the status quo normally works in their favor. However, this particular established institution, the GOP, is flirting with extinction. It will likely fail to win any statewide offices in CA this November, and the 2016 presidential campaign looks murky. It’s hard to see any other winning strategy than a visible and forceful move towards the middle on social policy. Many commentators have said this in recent years with no reaction from the Party, but events may have finally come to the point where the GOP will have to wake up and ensure its survival. Let’s hope it does: American democracy requires more than one major party.

Doug Lasken is a retired LA Unified teacher, recently returned to coach debate, a freelancer and education consultant. Read his blog at http://laskenlog.blogspot.com/ and write him at doug.lasken@gmail.com.