California’s gubernatorial election is just two months away. Currently leading by 21 points among likely voters, Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown holds the edge over Republican challenger Neel Kashkari. The odds, due to everything from finance to experience, are stacked at staggering heights against Kashkari, but the public shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss him as nothing but an underdog. Though he might lose this election, Kashkari’s win will be in reviving an ailing Republican brand.
At a glance, the political novice, Kashkari, 41, is probably unlikely to oust Brown, 76, who has spent a lifetime in politics.
According to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll, only one in four California voters can even identify Kashkari. A major part of the uphill battle, though, is the “R” following Kashkari’s name. Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman’s loss to Brown in 2010 — despite pouring over $140 million of her own money into campaigning — demonstrates this point clearly.
But if there’s any candidate that’s able revive the GOP brand, it’s Kashkari.
To generate attention, Kashkari has made up for his funding shortage with creative tactics of his own, tactics that present him as a different kind of Republican, one with character. This summer, he marched in the San Diego gay-pride parade, and he routinely speaks in black churches, the Economist reported. In July, he spent a week living as a homeless man in Fresno, sleeping on park benches, looking for work and eating at shelters in hopes of highlighting California’s poverty rate. Critics brushed it off as a publicity stunt, but it’s admirable for any politician to really get out there and sleep on the streets in the name of calling attention to the state’s uneven economic recovery.
Darry Sragow, a USC adjunct assistant professor of political science, told SF Gate in 2010 that Republicans will remain dead in California until the party “decides it won’t be hostile to people who aren’t old and white.” By his actions alone — from the homeless venture to the parade marches — Kashkari demonstrates his appeal to a spectrum that’s much broader than that “old and white” group. His roots also show his ability to relate to other demographics.
“My dad wasn’t governor … My parents were immigrants. I was a middle-class kid,” Kashkari said in a debate with Brown on Sept. 4. “I think Gov. Brown means well, but his 40 years in government have left him out of touch with the struggles of working families.”
Raised in Ohio, Kashkari bagged groceries and mowed lawns before pursuing an engineering degree and a career in finance. He’s lived the American Dream and gives hope to reversing the traditional — and crippling — image of the GOP as a party of privileged people.
The tide seems to be turning already. The day after the gubernatorial debate, news site Breitbart reported that Kashkari was trending on Facebook. For a Republican candidate in such a blue state, this attests to Kashkari’s solid performance. According to Carla Marinucci, a senior political writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, during the debate, “Kashkari was ferociously scrappy, well-prepared and unafraid to challenge the governor.”
It’s clear that for Kashkari, the race is about more than just votes in November — it’s about winning the hearts and minds of independents and the thousands of voters in California who have left the party. So far, he’s doing well.
Valerie Yu is a junior majoring in English. She is also the Editorial Director of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Tuesdays.