Calif. GOP sweats about conservative's rise

Many California Republicans are terrified they might wind up with a gubernatorial candidate that could hurt their party’s chances in competitive House races.

California state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R), a controversial hard-line conservative, has held a lead over establishment favorite and former Assistant Treasury Secretary Neel Kashkari (R) in recent polls. Some Republican strategists believe if he wins the GOP nomination next Tuesday he could drag down the rest of the GOP ticket with him.

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“Everybody's nervous as hell about what's going to happen at the gubernatorial level,” said California Republican strategist Allan Hoffenblum. “Whether or not we can hold onto what we have and pick some stuff up depends a lot on what will happen with Donnelly and Kashkari.”

If Donnelly wins, he could hurt Republicans in the state with the most competitive House races in the nation.

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Republican Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham are facing competitive challenges in the Golden State. Democrats are bullish about winning retiring GOP Rep. Gary Miller’s seat. Republicans, for their part, are hoping to defeat Democratic Reps. Scott Peters, Raul Ruiz, Ami Bera and Julia Brownley.

“Donnelly's really shrill statements on immigration will really frighten Latinos,” said Hoffenblum. “When you're dealing with races like Valadao's and Denham's and Ruiz's, it could be a disaster.”

Donnelly, a former head of the state’s anti-illegal immigration Minutemen group, has a long history of controversy. He has two previous arrests, including one in 2012 for bringing a loaded gun into an airport. (He has said he forgot it was in his bag).

He has compared President Obama’s gun control push to Adolf Hitler’s, described the Minutemen’s fight against illegal immigration as a “war,” and has run web ads some Latino groups have decried as racist.  

Donnelly's campaign recently accused Kashkari, a Hindu of Indian descent and former head of the Treasury Department’s Troubled Asset Relief Program, of supporting Sharia law.

“Neel Kashkari supported the United States submitting to the Islamic, Shariah banking code in 2008” as head of TARP, Donnelly’s campaign posted on its Facebook page, comments he stood by.

That led to a rebuke from a number of prominent Republicans.

“There is no place in any public discussion for this type of hateful and ignorant garbage.  As far as I’m concerned, this type of stupidity disqualifies Tim Donnelly from being fit to hold any office, anywhere.  Donnelly is no longer a viable option for California voters,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in a statement. “It is crap like this that gives Republicans a bad name and there is no place in the Republican Party or in this race for someone like Tim Donnelly.”

Issa was joined by former California Gov. Pete Wilson (R), who warned of Donnelly’s “bizarre votes and statements” and “his irresponsible personal behavior” in an open letter.

"With Tim Donnelly on the ballot, it would be a losing campaign, risking injury to our party and our state, and to other Republican candidates who deserve to win,” Wilson warned.

But despite a growing chorus of alarm from leading Republicans, it’s unclear whether Kashkari will defeat Donnelly. A trio of polls from early May found Donnelly ahead of him in the all-party primary, where the top two candidates advance. California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) had a huge advantage over both Republicans in all three polls.

Kashkari has since gone on the offensive, spending heavily on ads and mailers to boost his name identification and warn voters about Donnelly’s views.

“Tim, to be direct, in the last few months… You've managed to denigrate Latinos, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Hindus,” Kashkari told Donnelly in a recent radio debate.

Republicans believe Kashkari has the momentum but privately say he acted too late. They aren’t sure there is enough time left for him to pull past Donnelly. His paid efforts didn't start until just as early voting was starting.

“It’s going to be close,” said Republican strategist Kurt Bardella, who is working for a few California Republicans including Issa.

Some Republicans contend worries about Donnelly's down-ballot impact are overblown. Former National Republican Congressional Committee strategist Jeff Burton, who’s working as a consultant for House candidate Tony Strickland (R), compared Donnelly to controversial 2010 New York gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino (R) and pointed out that Republicans won a number of House seats in the Empire State that year despite Paladino’s presence at the top of the ticket.

“I don't think the governor's race is going to have any impact whatsoever,” he said.

But many others warn that Donnelly’s controversial statements could help drive Democratic turnout and prove a distraction from the issues they want to talk about. Donnelly could also hurt the state party at a structural level. His campaign, widely derided as disorganized and underfunded, could have trouble building the field structure necessary to help other candidates.

“Donnelly will provide Democrats enough ammunition to use his words against other people on the ballot and make him a campaign issue. You don't want candidates having to answer questions about what this person says,” says Bardella.

Donnelly’s and Kashkari’s campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.

--This report was updated at 2:38 p.m.