A House Divided: California Gubernatorial GOP Candidates Differ On How To Broaden Appeal

They are both Republicans in the fight to be the nominee to challenge Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.

Latinos are one of the key constituencies in California that the candidates are trying to win over as the GOP faces the need to expand its base of support in order to compete successfully in elections.

But the different approaches taken by Tim Donnelly, a conservative state assemblyman who advocates expanding gun rights, and Neel Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury official who wants to focus on the economy and education, as they try to appeal to a more diverse electorate show the struggle within the Republican Party at large over its future direction.

Both Donnelly and Kashkari recognize the need to appeal to Latino voters in a state where about half the residents are Hispanic. Their messages to the California Republican National Hispanic Assembly, however, were very different.

"I think we have to stop pandering and thinking there is a different message because of someone's skin color, because the colors of freedom are red, white and blue," Donnelly told the group.

Kashkari, who is of Indian heritage, said he deliberately gave his first television interview to the Latino network Univision.

"I said I want your viewers to know they are not an afterthought — they are my first thought," he said.

The ongoing struggle over the direction of the party played out this weekend at the Republican's California convention in Burlingame, in the Bay Area. The GOP here, as elsewhere, is torn between supporters who want to hold tightly to conservative principles and those who want to take a more pragmatic approach that has a chance to resonate with a broader cross-section of voters.

"The Republican Party in 2012 was cast as the party of no, the party that doesn't like different, diverse communities, the party that's only for old, rich white guys," Kashkari, 40, told the Log Cabin Republicans on Saturday.

"The new Republican Party that I want to build is the diverse Republican Party.... Every ethnicity, every sexual orientation, every lifestyle, everyone is welcome. The biggest tent you've ever seen in your life," he said.

The GOP has been steadily losing support in the state for two decades, and registration has slipped below 29 percent. (Just below 44 percent of Californians are registered Democrats.)

The party has struggled to win over younger voters and minorities, and state GOP chairman Jim Brulte said that broadening the party's reach to potential new voters is a top priority this election year.

Even so, the delegates who typically attend party conventions are among the most active and passionate, and many of those at the weekend gathering in Burlingame were sporting "Donnelly for Governor" stickers.

"The only thing Republican about Kashkari is the 'R' after his name," said Judi Neal, a member of the Pasadena Republican Women Federated (which is part of the California Federation of Republican Women). "I don't think he's capable of reaching out to conservatives."

Christopher Cole, who is chairman of the party in Lassen County in far northeastern California, said a moderate candidate would have a tough sell wooing conservatives in his county.

"We respect all candidates, but I think Tim's probably got the heart and soul of the county, particularly on hot-button issues like guns," Cole said. "I'm thinking about inviting Neel up there, but I don't know how his reception would be."

Kashkari did not address a conservative group that met Saturday morning, and the California Republican Assembly endorsed Donnelly, 47, a lawmaker from the San Bernardino community of Twin Peaks. Likewise, Donnelly did not appear at the Log Cabin Republicans meeting.

One of the issues that has energized conservative activists is a law signed by Brown that allows transgender students to access the restrooms and locker rooms of their choice. A proposed ballot initiative to repeal the law failed to gather enough signatures to qualify.

"It is not about homosexuality, and it is certainly not about transgender students — it's going to turn them into targets," Donnelly told the conservatives. "We are going to unite parents against this stupid law."

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is now a professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, implored Republicans to unite around a shared vision of the nation during a luncheon address.

"California needs to be rebuilt, too, around these principles of individual responsibility and liberty," Rice said to applause.

At Donnelly's convention booth, placed next to a Tea Party display, volunteers were working a "genius bar" modeled after a feature in Apple stores, demonstrating and installing the campaign's mobile application to potential supporters.

For many of the delegates, this weekend is their first chance to meet Kashkari, who is best known as the former U.S. Treasury official who oversaw the bank bailout at the start of the Great Recession. He recorded an Instagram video in front of reporters, and his enthusiastic young volunteers handed out bumper stickers and bags of popcorn.

California's top two, open primary means the two candidates with the most votes in June will advance to the general election, regardless of their party affiliation. Both Donnelly or Kashkari are likely to need to capture voters beyond the registered Republicans to make it to November.

And whoever makes it to the general election faces long odds in attempting to defeat the incumbent Brown, who is 75 and seeking an unprecedented fourth term. He has amassed nearly $18 million in contributions and is expected to win re-election easily.

Log Cabin Chairman Charles Moran said he was encouraged that Kashkari supports gay marriage and that Donnelly has said he thinks the government should get out of peoples' marriages, whether gay or straight.

"I'm hoping that the party has finally gotten it through their heads that fighting battles on social issues in California will result in losses for Republicans," he said.

Donnelly opposes abortion but said Friday that it is not relevant in the governor's race. But on Saturday he wore on his lapel an anti-abortion pin meant to represent a fetus at 10 weeks, along with a flag pin featuring an American Revolution-era flag. Donnelly declined to discuss the anti-abortion pin when asked.

Donnelly had a public falling out earlier this week with his campaign manager and has struggled with fundraising. Nevertheless, he said that his message was appealing to people "way beyond the conservative base."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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