California GOP Debate a Microcosm for Establishment vs. Grassroots

Even though California is as blue as blue can be, and the upcoming gubernatorial election in November is considered a fait accompli in Governor Jerry Brown’s favor, it’s worth listening to the lively primary debate that took place on May 15 in Anaheim, California between  Republican candidates Neel Kashkari – a former Treasury Department official during the Bush Administration – and California State Assemblyman Tim Donnelly.

The top two winners in a June 3 primary will face off in the November elections.  As it currently stands, Governor Moonbeam is the favorite, polling at 57% of the vote;  Donnelly is in second place, polling at 17%; and Kashkari is polling at 2%.

The debate, while particular to California, reflects the internal fissures in the GOP between what has come to be designated “establishment or moderate” Republicans and “grassroots or Tea Party type” conservatives. 

Donnelly adroitly pointed out that it was time to bring “more country into the county club.”  With this catchy sound bite, Donnelly tapped into grassroots angst that the divisions in the GOP are not so much between the Establishment and the Tea Party as between a group of elitists within the GOP – who think they know what’s best to win and govern – and the people.  How ironic that this intra-party conflict, centered on an attitude of "who knows best,” mirrors the same clash we have on a national, inter-party scale.  The tug-of-war between right and left ideologies is to be expected.  Within our own country club, it’s unnerving.  

Frankly, Donnelly and Kashkari are both attractive, each for different reasons.  Donnelly appears to be in touch with the average conservative in California and his or her frustrations, fears, and concerns.  Kashkari is part of the “grow the party” wing of the GOP.  “We have very different visions for the Republican Party," Kashkari said, "and that’s what this election comes down to.  I want to grow our party.  I want to bring everyone together and unite us on the principles of hard work and personal responsibility.”  He also accused Donnelly of denigrating minorities, concluding that that is probably why so many “establishment” Republicans endorsed the former Bush administration Treasury official.

Donnelly fired back that endorsements do not grow a party and that he is winning votes by knocking on doors and organizing around issues like Common Core, which “is uniting Republicans and Democrats, uniting people who are rich and poor, it is uniting everybody who has children because they’re uniting as parents.”  

Neither candidate is perfect.  As mentioned, Kashkari accused Donnelly of making offensive comments to various minorities, and Donnelly questioned Kashkari  about a seminar he gave to help companies doing business in Islamic countries understand Islamic law in order to be compliant with sharia.  

Nor are their supporters perfect.  During the introductions, some boos were leveled at Kashkari, presumably from Donnelly supporters.  This kind of behavior is unbecoming in conservatives: it is, at best, disrespectful and, at worst, a boon to Democrats. 

As for Kashkari, his repeated big-tent call to grow the party and appeal to all voters is tough to reconcile with a sign held up by one of his supporters: “There’s no place in the GOP for Tim Donnelly.”  

This sign got under my skin.  Is this an indictment of grassroots conservatives?  Have the  numerous victories brought to the GOP in recent years by grassroots and Tea Party conservatives been completely neutralized by their mistakes (Akin, Mourdock, and O’Donnnell)?  Is the message here that every voter is invited into the big tent except for devoted grassroots conservatives, who, instead, will be banished and forced into exile with their votes, their activism, their funds, and their GOTV efforts? 

Time, and more elections, will tell.

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