This year's election for governor of the Golden State is just plain weird.

Jerry Brown is seeking a history-making fourth term, and his top challenger -- trailing by nearly 40 points in recent polls -- is a Tea Party darling still on probation after airport security in 2012 caught him with a loaded handgun registered to an 83-year-old woman. Behind him is another Republican so lacking in name recognition that he actually fell behind a registered sex offender in one poll.

With vote-by-mail ballots about to go out this week for the June 3 primary, there has been no statewide TV advertising, no memorable stump speeches, no dirty tricks to speak of. And it's impossible to find a pollster, pundit or political science professor who sees any viable threat to Brown. It's been more than a half century since the race for the state's top political job seemed like such a done deal.


(Doug Griswold)

"There's a governor's race?" joked Thad Kousser, a UC San Diego associate professor and state politics expert.

But even if this year's race looks like a foregone conclusion, the way it unfolds will likely portend where policy and politics in the state Capitol are headed. And if nothing else, it's an amazing contrast with what happened just four years ago.

In 2010, Brown fought a fierce battle against GOP nominee Meg Whitman, a Silicon Valley billionaire who poured $144 million of her own money into her losing campaign. Brown's campaign as of mid-March had more than 20 times more money than the combined war chests of his two main Republican competitors. He hasn't even bothered to hold a public campaign event, while his two main competitors are eager to talk to anyone who'll listen.

Four years ago, state lawmakers were still waist-deep in red ink. Today, the debate is whether to save or spend the state's surplus.

In last month's Field Poll, Brown didn't merely slaughter his closest challenger, Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly. He had far more than twice the support of Donnelly and Republicans Neel Kashkari and Andrew Blount combined. Blount, the Laguna Hills mayor who despite low name recognition and paltry fundraising had still edged or tied Kashkari in polls, threw in the towel last week.

State GOP Chairman Jim Brulte pretty much said at the GOP convention in Burlingame in March that the party is writing off the race. But it could be worse, some delegates whispered: They'd rather see Brown lose, but noted that by keeping Democratic lawmakers from running wild with new spending, he's Sacramento's "adult in the room."

So the stage is set for California's biggest blowout since 1950, when incumbent Republican Gov. Earl Warren trounced Democrat James Roosevelt by 30 points, carrying all 58 counties.

Roosevelt, FDR's eldest son, "knew he wasn't going to win," but ran mostly to keep his party alive, said historian and State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr, now a University of Southern California professor. Likewise, "you have to admire the doggedness of the Republicans who are making their way though this campaign and keeping their party alive," he said.

Brown isn't immune to criticism. Roughly half of California voters want to pull the plug on the high-speed rail project he still champions, and most don't like the twin Delta tunnels he wants built to address water issues. Most want to legalize marijuana; he opposes it. And as Kashkari tirelessly points out, the state ranks low in job creation and school performance while having the nation's highest poverty rate.

Yet Kashkari and Donnelly so far have been unable to spark the kind of outrage they need for real traction.

This is the first California governor's race using the new open-primary system, in which the top two vote-getters advance to November's general election regardless of party. Supporters say the system will reduce the influence of hard-core partisan voters and buoy the candidacy of moderate candidates. But it's not playing out that way so far.

As Donnelly struggled to raise money last year, some pundits thought deep-pocketed GOP donors were keeping their powder dry for a more moderate option. Yet Kashkari reaped neither the contributions nor the poll numbers many political analysts had expected. He sent out targeted mailers last week and plans to launch television ads soon, but it will be a frugal blitz at best.

Best known for overseeing the U.S. Treasury Department's Troubled Assets Relief Program to bail out Wall Street, Kashkari wants to "unleash the private sector" from regulation, especially manufacturing and energy; he envisions a California oil and gas "fracking" boom much like North Dakota's. He also wants corporate tax breaks for any company that brings 100 or more jobs or builds a new plant in the state. And he'd like to see overtime pay kick in only after a 40-hour workweek, not after an eight-hour day.

Kashkari also wants to gut the state Education Code and let individual schools decide how to spend state money. He would tie higher-education funds to campus success rates, while putting more UC and CSU courses online and offering free tuition to science, technology, engineering and math students in exchange for a cut of future earnings.

Donnelly's campaign slogan is "Patriot, Not Politician." He speaks of the "foundational principles" of "freedom, prosperity, security and responsibility" as he aims to reduce or remove government in all areas of Californians' lives.

A staunch gun-rights advocate and former Minuteman anti-illegal-immigration activist, Donnelly opposes abortion and wants to slash taxes and state spending, halt all new state regulations, shutter or privatize various state agencies, end Obamacare and reverse Brown's "realignment" program that sent state prisoners to county jails.

Many Republicans agree with him, but it's a hard sell in a state where Democrats hold a 15-point voter registration edge and nonpartisans tend to lean left.

Other candidates include Republican Glenn Champ, a registered sex offender who also did prison time for voluntary manslaughter but now says on his website that he's a changed man and "a new breed of Christian soldier moving forward in the army of the lord, on the highway of righteousness, stomping on the devil's head, with a new song of righteousness's (sic) in our hearts."

Nonpartisan candidate Janel Buycks, a minister from Lakewood, claims she has Jesus Christ's endorsement already sewn up. There's also Alma Winston, a San Jose Republican whose gun policies include pursuing "a laser-type of defensive weaponry that offers a less-than-fatal outcome."

And then there's Democrat Akinyemi Agbede, a Fresno doctoral student and self-proclaimed "super-genius" who wants nothing more than to ensure that "the beautiful smiling faces of the people of California will forever be permanent."

Brown said in February he seeks re-election "with humility and the realization that there's a great responsibility in the work that lies ahead." He said he'll focus on maintaining a balanced budget and a healthy reserve fund, implementing the new local-control funding formula for K-12 schools, and continuing to oversee prison realignment.

"After the primary, nobody's thinking that Jerry Brown is going to get defeated or that it necessarily will be a close race, but he will have a legitimate opponent," said veteran GOP strategist Ken Khachigian, who advised Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson.

Whoever that opponent is, he "can certainly raise a lot of challenges; he can put a mirror to the face of the government," Khachigian added. "Jerry has reined in the left-wingers in the Legislature, making him look moderate by comparison. Nevertheless, this is not a state without problems."

This year's election landscape, UC San Diego's Kousser said, doesn't mean that California will always be ruled by a Democrat.

California "is still a competitive state at the top of the ticket," he said, "if you have a truly self-financed candidate who fits that California Republican mold of socially moderate and fiscally conservative."

For now, however, "everybody is waiting for a better time to run," Kousser said.

Perhaps like next time, when California's lieutenant governor is expected to be one of the top Democrats seeking the No. 1 job.

Asked Kousser: "Wouldn't you want to take on Gavin Newsom instead?"

Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

california's leading candidates for governor
Name: Jerry Brown
Party: Democrat
Age: 76
Residence: Oakland
Education: Bachelor's degree in classics, UC Berkeley; law degree, Yale Law School
Experience: Governor since 2011; state attorney general, 2007-11; Oakland mayor, 1999-2007; California Democratic Party chairman, 1989-91; governor, 1975-82; secretary of state, 1971-75; Los Angeles Community College trustee, 1969-70; presidential primary candidate in 1976, 1980 and 1992.
Campaign cash as of March 17: $19.7 million
Website: www.jerrybrown.org

Name: Tim Donnelly
Party: Republican
Age: 47
Residence: Twin Peaks in San Bernardino County
Education: Bachelor's degree in English, UC Irvine
Experience: Assemblyman since 2010; Minuteman anti-illegal-immigration activist, 2005-06; owner of Donnelly Plastic Equipment, 1994-2011
Campaign cash as of March 17: $11,000
Website: www.electtimdonnelly.com

Name: Neel Kashkari
Party: Republican
Age: 40
Residence: Laguna Beach
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; M.B.A., Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Experience: Managing director/head of global equities at Pimco, 2009-13; assistant U.S. treasury secretary overseeing Troubled Assets Relief Program, 2008-09; Treasury Department senior adviser, 2006-08; vice president at Goldman Sachs, 2002-06; mechanical engineer/research investigator at TRW, 1998-2000
Campaign cash as of March 17: $903,000
Website: www.neelkashkari.com


other candidates for governor
Akinyemi Agbede (D), doctoral student from Fresno -- http://thenextgovernorofcalifornia2014.com
Richard Aguirre (D), real estate investor from San Diego -- http://aguirreforgovernor.com
Andrew Blount* (R), mayor of Laguna Hills -- www.andrewblount.com
Glenn Champ (R), contractor from Tollhouse (Fresno County) -- www.champforgovernor.com
Alma Marie Winston (R), project funding executive from San Jose -- www.winston4gov.com
Luis Rodriguez (Green), author and community organizer from San Fernando -- http://rodriguezforgovernor.org
Cindy Sheehan (Peace and Freedom), activist and nonprofit director from Vacaville -- http://www.cindy2014.org
Bo Ambrozewicz (No Party Preference), small-business owner from Greenwood (El Dorado County) -- www.boambroz.com
Janel Buycks (NPP), minister and staffing agency owner from Lakewood (Los Angeles County) -- www.janelbuycksforchange.com
Rakesh Kumar Christian (NPP), small-business owner from Hayward -- http://americanpublicparty.com
Joe Leicht (NPP), golf course operator from San Clemente -- www.joeforgov.org
Robert Newman (NPP), retired psychologist from Redlands -- http://robertnewman.nationbuilder.com/
*Withdrew from race last week