SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Republicans who have been trying to rebrand their party as more inclusive and attuned with the issues that Californians care about had hoped this year to offer a candidate for governor who fit that image.
Now, however, the party faces the prospect of a conservative gubernatorial nominee who is on probation for carrying a loaded gun into an airport, is accused of race-baiting and is best known for his far-right positions on gun control and immigration.
While Republicans do not expect to unseat Gov. Jerry Brown in November, tea party darling Tim Donnelly's rise over businessman Neel Kashkari has alarmed party leaders who worry that the assemblyman's candidacy is setting back the rebranding and could hurt other candidates on the ballot.
"He will simply drag down massive numbers of Republicans who think they are safe today," said Tony Quinn, a Republican and co-editor of the Target Book, which analyzes legislative and congressional races in the state.
Donnelly's apparent popularity in public opinion polls ahead of the June 3 primary had already elicited concern from Republicans when he began trying to link Kashkari, who is Indian-American and Hindu, to Islamic Shariah law.
The New Majority, a moderate Republican group that includes well-heeled business leaders and other donors, said in a statement that "there is no place for this kind of divisive rhetoric in the Republican Party or American politics."
Donnelly, never one to retreat, has defended his efforts, saying he is merely "asking questions" about his opponent.
The fight over the party's image comes after several disastrous years of sliding GOP registration, which stands at 28.5 percent of registered voters. Democrats have 43.5 percent, while 21 percent list no party preference.
Those who have been working to revitalize the party believed they had a chance to reshape the GOP's image with Kashkari, 40, a former aerospace engineer and Goldman Sachs banker who is best known for helping lead the federal bank bailout at the height of the recession.
While the Troubled Asset Relief Program he led is deeply unpopular with many in his party, Kashkari has endorsements from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former California Gov. Pete Wilson. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has also endorsed Kashkari and said last week that Donnelly is not fit "to hold any office, anywhere."
Donnelly said the endorsements are evidence of the "political class circling the wagons trying to protect their power," rather than fighting Brown's policies.
The party's need to rebrand itself is among the lingering effects of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure Wilson supported that sought to ban immigrants who are in the country illegally from most social services. The party has struggled to attract younger and nonwhite voters ever since.
Donnelly in many ways helps to remind voters of that history.
He was elected to his conservative San Bernardino County district in 2010 after founding the California branch of the Minuteman border patrol, which scours the U.S.-Mexico border in search of people attempting to enter the country illegally.
Donnelly was arrested in 2012 at the Ontario airport in Southern California with a loaded gun in his briefcase. He said he forgot it was there.
He drew attention again in March for a tweet that compared President Barack Obama's gun control policies with those of dictators such as Adolf Hitler and North Korea's Kim Jong Il. In May, he was the lone vote against a bill to ban state-run shops from selling or displaying images of the Confederate flag.
Donnelly's supporters argue that those strong stances would offer voters a real contrast with Brown in November, said John Briscoe, president of the California Republican Assembly, which calls itself "the conscience of the Republican Party."
"Why vote for liberal light when you can just vote for liberal?" he said.
Republicans in closely fought legislative races are now being warned that if Donnelly is on the ticket in November, they could spend much of their time distancing themselves from him instead of focusing on issues they care about.
Kashkari has far surpassed Donnelly in fundraising, raising $1.1 million since mid-March and adding $1 million of his own money this month. Donnelly has raised $150,000 in that period and had a similar amount in debt on his last campaign report.
Still, an April public opinion poll showed Donnelly at 17 percent support compared with just 2 percent for Kashkari. Both trailed Brown by a wide margin.
Turnout in June is expected to be far older, more white and more conservative than the overall California electorate, posing additional challenges for moderate candidates like Kashkari, who supports gay marriage and abortion rights.
Concern over Donnelly's emergence prompted businessman Bill Bloomfield to put $142,000 into an independent expenditure campaign for Kashkari. Bloomfield quit the GOP in 2011 over what he saw as extremist views.
"I think everybody in this state ought to be worried," Bloomfield said.