From left to right: Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (Erin Tyler/Flickr),  Neel Kashkari (Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images), Governor Jerry Brown (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
From left to right: Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (Erin Tyler/Flickr), Neel Kashkari (Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images), Governor Jerry Brown (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s the No. 1 question in these final two weeks of California’s 2014 gubernatorial primary: Are the continuing strong poll numbers for GOP hopeful Tim Donnelly only the ground floor of his support, the foundation from which he can soar? Or are the numbers as high as he can go, a political ceiling?

One thing’s for sure: Among everyone not named Jerry Brown, Donnelly remains in the lead.

The new poll released by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California finds the tea party-aligned assemblyman from San Bernardino County favored by 30 percent of Republicans — a 10-point jump from last month’s PPIC poll and 9 points ahead of his GOP rival, newcomer Neel Kashkari.

Among all likely voters, Donnelly now bests Kashkari by 5 points, 15 percent to 10 percent.

That being said, the race remains solidly in the hands of Gov. Jerry Brown, who leads the gubernatorial field in the new poll with 48 percent support among all likely voters, and a 54 percent job approval rating. Twenty-seven percent of those surveyed say they haven’t made up their mind, a group that has shrunk since April but whose size makes clear that there are still a lot of fence-sitters in these final days of campaigning.

(And as pointed out in April, some Republicans are just fine with filling in the oval next to Brown’s name on their ballot; in fact, the veteran Democrat is now the choice of 13 percent of GOP voters.)

While Donnelly’s support has grown, the biggest change from PPIC’s April statewide poll is the rise in support among the ranks of the GOP for Kashkari — from just 5 percent to now 21 percent. That’s no doubt due, in part, to the former Treasury official’s well-financed operation starting to kick into gear — a deluge of mailers and political advertisements. It may also have helped that virtually every single well-known Republican in California, from ex-governors to legislative leaders and to even 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, have all now endorsed Kashkari’s bid to unseat Brown.

Those Republican VIPs have started beating their political drums that Tim Donnelly is too extreme, that he’s so far to the right that he’ll drag down the entire GOP ticket in 2014. Perhaps that, too, has helped Kashkari.

And yet, Donnelly maintains a lead. In fact, Kashkari needs to woo close to six of every 10 undecided voters in the new PPIC poll (across all party allegiances and assuming already committed voters don’t shift) to beat Donnelly. It’s possible, but Team Neel needs to start scoring some runs … and fast.  Keep in mind that voters are already casting ballots by mail.

Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari speaks to campaign volunteers. (Scott Detrow)
Former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari speaks to campaign volunteers. (Scott Detrow)

To that end, the Kashkari camp has been ramping up its criticism of Donnelly’s behavior — specifically, the assemblyman’s recent jabs at Kashkari’s appearance at a 2008 Islamic finance conference. Kashkari is also starting to jab back at his rival, a Republican assemblyman; a new mailer accuses Donnelly of being a “wasteful spender” when it comes to campaign expenses and “a wreck” for allegedly missing business and personal tax payments.

Still, Donnelly continues to poll strongly among several voter subgroups. He holds a 6-point lead over Kashkari in the new PPIC survey among the most wealthy voters; an 8-point lead among both moderates and men; and an 11-point lead over his GOP rival among Latinos — a voting bloc many assume would be turned off by Donnelly’s past as a Minuteman volunteer and his rhetoric on illegal immigration.

But again, do those numbers represent Tim Donnelly’s ceiling — his upper limit — among various voter subgroups? After all, the undecideds in this poll remain high.  And among those who tell the PPIC that they are tuning in to news about the race for governor, Donnelly’s advantage over Kashkari narrows to just 3 points.

And that’s where money could play its familiar role.

State campaign records show Tim Donnelly has raised about $207,000 since the last full disclosure report in March, a report that also listed $149,000 in unpaid bills. In contrast, Kashkari has raised $2.7 million since the March filing — $2 million of that coming from his own personal bank account.

Kashkari is spending that money to reach out to the GOP base, voters who self-identify as conservatives. And it might be working; in the new PPIC poll, Donnelly’s lead among conservatives has shrunk to 2 points, with 34 percent still undecided.

“That is the big group,” says PPIC president and pollster Mark Baldassare on conservatives’ power in the GOP. “And that group is just not decided on who’s going to carry the banner for them.”

Donnelly prides himself on his bare-bones campaign and revels in his status as the GOP “front-runner.” But like any good horse race, this one’s tightening down the final straightaway and toward the finish line. The contest for second place — Brown will undoubtedly finish first once the votes are counted — will be determined by who gets those undecided voters. And Donnelly, if he can hold on to beat the establishment GOP’s candidate, is going to have do it on a shoestring budget.

Author

John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he served nine years as the statehouse bureau chief for KQED Public Radio and The California Report, and most recently as political editor for the Sacramento ABC-TV affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John served as moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and was recently named by The Washington Post as one of the nation's most influential statehouse reporters.  Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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