LOS ANGELES -- The Republican Party establishment got the candidate for California governor it wanted in former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, who squeezed past a tea party-favored state lawmaker to challenge Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown as he seeks an unprecedented fourth term as governor in November.
But the Republican celebration will be short-lived. The primary contest was seen as a fight for the right to lose to Brown, a popular Democrat in an overwhelmingly liberal state who has a lifetime of experience campaigning in California. He has more than $21 million in the bank after spending virtually nothing.
"The next governor is not going to be a Republican unless something truly groundbreaking happens," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "Jerry Brown is not going to lose. Voters are very familiar with him."
Kashkari acknowledged the struggle at a news conference Wednesday, but he promised to focus on issues that affect the middle class, such as improving California's struggling schools, creating jobs and scrapping California's $68 billion high-speed rail project.
"These issues that I'm speaking about and that I'm passionate about are not partisan issues. They're issues that everybody cares about, and we can absolutely unite Republicans as well as many others around the state," Kashkari told reporters in Corona del Mar, in Orange County.
First, though, the 40-year-old former Goldman Sachs banker will need to introduce himself to a broader swath of voters. Although he greatly outspent his GOP primary rival, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly of Twin Peaks in San Bernardino County, Kashkari had only enough money to target a small section of predominantly Republican voters in a low-turnout contest.
Brown drew 54.5 percent of the vote Tuesday, while Kashkari had 19 percent and Donnelly was approaching 15 percent. Another 13 candidates drew a combined 10.5 percent.
Besides his lack of political experience, Kashkari's biggest liability is likely to be his role leading the deeply unpopular federal bank bailout from 2008 to 2009. His campaign has said the federal government brought in $435.8 billion after giving out $422.2 billion.
Kashkari's economic proposals include a 10-year corporate tax credit for companies that move to California and create more than 100 new jobs, diverting nearly $10 billion in high-speed rail bond money to water storage projects and promoting fracking for oil and natural gas.
His pitch resonated with registered Democrat Marco Diaz, 25, a student and freelance photographer who said he voted for Kashkari after reviewing his economic policy.
"At this time and point in my career with taxes -- I mean that's real important, because California has one of the highest income taxes," he said.
But the economic positions do not necessarily draw a dramatic contrast with Brown, the 76-year-old son of a former governor who has served in public office most of his life. He has been fiscally restrained since returning to the governor's office in 2011 after first serving from 1975-1983. He has pushed for a stronger rainy day fund that will appear on the November ballot.
Brown, who has also rejected appeals from fellow Democrats to increase spending on social welfare programs that were slashed during the recession, characterized Tuesday's results as "a vote for strong fiscal management."
The California Democratic Party characterized Kashkari in a memo Wednesday as a "sacrificial lamb" and "the next Meg Whitman-in-training," the former eBay chief executive who spent $178.5 million, including $144 million of her own money, on a losing bid against Brown in 2010.
Prominent Republicans such as Rep. Darrell Issa of California and former U.S. presidential nominee Mitt Romney rallied around Kashkari, a social moderate who supports gay marriage and abortion rights, after Donnelly ramped up his rhetoric on illegal immigration and gun rights and tried to link Kashkari to fundamentalist Islamic law. They worried that Donnelly could hurt other Republican candidates in contested legislative and congressional races.
Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said the party "dodged an enormous bullet."