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California Republicans Struggle to Prep for Primary 11 Weeks From Now

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Governor Jerry Brown continues to have the "luck of the Irish" on this St. Patrick's Day.

California Republicans gathered over the weekend just past for the first of their two annual state party conventions, this one conveniently located for a quick getaway near the San Francisco airport. After reports from me and a few others that the party's gubernatorial candidates were not invited to address the full convention -- though were allowed to talk to caucuses and other smaller gatherings -- the two would-be losers to Jerry Brown were allowed to address delegates gathered for a general session of the convention. But ex-U.S. assistant Treasury secretary Neel Kashkari, the former Wall Street bailout coordinator, rejected far right state Assemblyman Tim Donnelly's challenge to a debate. Donnelly just lost his campaign manager in the past few days, reportedly concerned over some of his aggressive antics.

I didn't attend but by all accounts most of those antics reportedly go over big with state Republican convention delegates. California Republican Party chairman Jim Brulte, the former GOP leader in both houses of the state legislature -- who is really focused on trying to win a handful of seats in the state legislature and Congress to prevent a two-thirds Democratic super-majority in the former and Democratic gains in the latter -- shrewdly had the convention adjourned before hearing from the gubernatorial candidates, l thus making sure there could be no motion from the floor for an endorsement of Tim Donnelly. The Tea Party leader from Twin Peaks -- any relation to the spooky old David Lynch cult TV series Twin Peaks is strictly coincidental -- is a gun, er, enthusiast and former leader of the Minutmen, the vigilante anti-illegal immigrant group. And Donnelly looks an awful lot like Walter White in Breaking Bad.

So it only stands to reason that Donnelly would have at least one celebrity campaigner, though not multiple Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston, who played the brilliant high school chem teacher-turned-meth drug boss in the iconic series. Donnelly's backer is Maria Conchita Alonso, who co-starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in a hit movie that was not about a governor's race to be, The Running Man. The former Miss Venezuela, no fan of the socialists in her home country, is like Donnelly a staunch anti-Communist. She says she likes the candidate despite their disagreements on gun control and illegal immigrants.

Dubbing Brown a "Marxist progressive parading as a Democrat," Donnelly promises a campaign that will be "an epic showdown between socialism and freedom."

Okay then.

Kashkari (who I early on dubbed "Cash and Carry" before discovering he wasn't nearly as rich as then rumored and probably was not a master fundraiser), blasted Brown before the convention as someone "born into a life of unimaginable privilege."

This was a week after saying that Brown's legacy is "the destruction of the middle class," ignoring the fact that the middle class was in a lot better shape when he left the governorship in 1983 than it was when he returned in 2011. In the 28 years between Jerry Brown 1.0 and Jerry Brown 2.0, California had 23 years of Republican governorships. Not that it's all their fault, either.

Anyway, in the real history of California, Jerry Brown was born into, not a life of unimaginable privilege, but a middle class Irish Catholic family. His dad, Pat Brown, was a first generation lawyer. Pat Brown had run only one political campaign, a race for the state Assembly, which he lost. His mom, Bernice Layne Brown, was the daughter of a San Francisco police captain and recent graduate of UC Berkeley.

A year after Jerry Brown was born, his father ran a second race for public office and lost again, this time for district attorney of San Francisco. Finally, when Jerry was five, his dad won an election, this time in his second try for San Francisco district attorney. But after garnering the Democratic nomination, Pat Brown lost his first race for statewide office, that of California attorney general.

Finally, when Jerry was 12, his dad was elected state attorney general, the office he held for the next eight years. It wasn't until Jerry was 20 years old that his father became the governor of California. And by then, Jerry Brown was no longer living at home. He was living an ascetic life in a Jesuit seminary, studying to become a priest. When, after several years of study he decided to re-enter the secular world as a student at UC Berkeley, he lived off-campus at International House, which no one who knows the University of California would describe as plush. After graduating, he went on to Yale Law School.

In reality, for all the affection he has now for the Old Governor's Mansion in downtown Sacramento, Jerry Brown never really lived there. After graduating from Yale Law and clerking for a state supreme court justice, he joined a law firm in Los Angeles, where he launched his political career a few years after his dad lost to Ronald Reagan.

And that was it for California's elegant old Governor's Mansion. Nancy Reagan immediately rejected it as too small, too old, and too close to the public for the Hollywood couple, sitting as it does just off a public street a few blocks from the State Capitol. Instead, the Reagans insisted on a new governor's mansion, to be built largely with private funding. But when Jerry Brown succeeded Reagan as governor, he refused to stay there, eschewing what he called the Reagans' "Taj Mahal" for an apartment across the street from the Capitol, where the new governor slept on a mattress.

Kashkari is supposed to be playing the intelligent and thoughtful candidate in contrast to Donnelly's fire-breathing knuckle dragger.

But in order to do that, he has to know what he's talking about. Maybe the tyro candidate, who grew up in Ohio and went to the University of Illinois, can take a class in California history. It's not like the statewide primary election is in June or anything. Oh, wait, it is.

In any event, Kashkari can't keep up with the fast-talking Donnelly in invective and he knows it, which is one reason why he turned down Donnelly's challenge to a convention debate.

After pulling in a million bucks in the first two weeks after he announced his candidacy, Kashkari has only raised about $150,000 so far this month in contributions of $1,000 or more. Will that be enough to move him past Donnelly, who raised far less?

As the saying goes, stay tuned.

The tension is becoming almost Hitchcockian in nature, isn't it?

The Republicans' best shot may lie in the state controller's race, where 41-year old two-term Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, an impressive figure, has a shot against Democrats John Perez, the state Assembly speaker, and Betty Yee, a state Board of Equalization member.

Swearengin rose to prominence as lead executive in the Schwarzenegger-created California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley prior to winning her first race for mayor of Fresno in 2008.

But it's tough to win against a Jerry Brown-led landslide, as LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley discovered in 2010, losing narrowly to San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris despite Republican nominee Meg Whitman spending more money in her losing bid for governor than any other non-presidential campaign in American history.

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