As tea party candidates lost to more mainstream Republicans in states from Georgia to Kentucky to Oregon in recent weeks, a critical question has emerged regarding the California GOP.
Will it resist this wave of moderation?
Most polls in California -- among the truest blue states -- have shown tea party favorite Tim Donnelly ahead of more-moderate and better-funded Republican Neel Kashkari in the runup to Tuesday's primary. The winner will take on Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, who undoubtedly will place No. 1 in the "top-two" primary, in November's general election.
Donnelly's red-meat credentials are clear: He's a former Minuteman anti-illegal-immigration activist, staunch gun-rights supporter and self-described "patriot, not politician" who made a name for himself in the Assembly by rising -- often alone -- to speak against most Democratic bills.
Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official campaigning as a fiscal conservative but demonstrably more moderate on issues such as gun rights, abortion and same-sex marriage, talks in his stump speech about wanting to be the face of a stronger, more inclusive GOP. But while his recent ad blitz, funded largely with $2 million of his own money, has pushed him closer, only the very latest poll, released Sunday by the L.A. Times, has showed him surpassing Donnelly -- and even then his five-point lead was within the poll's margin of error.
Their battle has divided even the traditionally more moderate Republicans of the Bay Area, with each camp believing their candidate puts the party's best foot forward. And thatcould be a bad omen for a California Republican resurgence, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
"In some states the learning curve for Republicans is flat, and California may be one of them," he said, adding that even picking Kashkari over Donnelly "is barely a nudge in the direction of what they have to do" to become truly competitive again.
"They have to repudiate large parts of the national platform" on issues from immigration to gay marriage, Sabato said. "They cannot run on those positions any more and even expect to get out of the starting gate. ... If you want to win elections, you have to reflect the electorate whether you like it or not. You cannot insult people and expect them to vote for you."
California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said as much at the party's convention in March in Burlingame. "This is a party that, whether we like it or not, has been in decline for two decades in this state," he said, adding that it's time to get back to basics by "grinding it out on the ground" in local races, where elections are won by candidates who look and sound most like -- and share the values and experiences of -- local voters. "We have to get outside our comfort zones and go talk to people who aren't on our team right now."
Brulte gets it, as do national GOP leaders, Sabato said last week, before the L.A. Times poll was released.
"But either the base doesn't get it at all, or they get it but don't care," he said, adding that it comes down to a choice of "be pure and lose, or compromise and win."
And if you want to know where the former path leads, Sabato said, you could ask a member of the Whig party -- had they not gone the way of the dodo, their party torn apart in the 1850s by dissension over whether to support slavery.
For Nina Pellegrini, it's about basic conservative values. The 70-year-old Cuban immigrant and tea party member said she's "all for liberty and freedom that I think is lacking in this country and especially in California."
Donnelly, she said, "is honest, and that's what I'm looking for" -- so much so that she hosted him for a fundraiser Saturday at her family's Montara home.
"He talks to us directly with no subterfuge," she said, adding that Kashkari seems more politically motivated. "We don't feel he (Donnelly) is doing it just because he wants to get elected."
But Sue Caro, chairwoman of the Alameda County Republican Party, said she'd rather take her chances with Kashkari as a path toward the GOP's future.
"In our hearts a lot of conservatives agree with what Donnelly says," said Caro, 65, of Oakland, but many can't reconcile that with his actions, from shrugging off his 2012 conviction for trying to carry a loaded gun through Ontario Airport security -- for which he's still on probation -- to his insinuations trying to link Kashkari to Islamic Sharia law.
"If he gets the nomination, other Republicans all over the state are going to have to not be seen with him," Caro said. "He's throwing a monkey wrench into the works, as far as I'm concerned."
Donnelly's popularity is also an indication that the tea party is not completely fading on a national level. The movement's favored candidates fared well in Texas' GOP primaries for several statewide offices, including lieutenant governor and attorney general. Another beat 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, who after 17 terms is the oldest-ever member of the House.
Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College professor and political expert, noted that no Democrat is even in the race for Hall's seat -- the only choices are conservative and even more conservative. So Texas voters know they're picking a Republican winner, where their California counterparts are often choosing a preferred sacrificial lamb.
Republicans voting in California's statewide races "get to express their passion without worrying they'll blow an otherwise winnable election because it's not winnable to begin with," Pitney said.
"Most voters just don't think in terms of long-term political strategy," he said, adding that the only way to break the cycle is to "build up the party at the grass roots. Eventually you get a better farm club, and four years from now you might have better candidates seeking the governorship."