Gov. Jerry Brown in a steamy political scandal? Unlikely.
Another national economic collapse? Also a long shot.
After last week's primary election, the real question is: Does a rookie Republican like Neel Kashkari have any chance of toppling a popular governor in an ultrablue state?
California political experts say only Brown's, ahem, death could keep him from winning an unprecedented fourth term in November. But even the Grim Reaper himself wouldn't necessarily lift Kashkari to victory: California election laws give even candidates in coffins the right to stay alive on the ballot.
Brown got 54 percent of the vote in Tuesday's primary, even though he didn't campaign at all -- no mailers, no TV or radio ads, no political events. He held onto all but a smidgen of his $20.7 million campaign war chest.
Recent polls show his approval rating as high as 59 percent as voters give him credit for a newly stable state budget and falling unemployment. Brown, 76, also has the name recognition that comes with 40 years in elected office. But the 40-year-old Kashkari, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who has never held elected office and helped bail out the banks after the economy collapsed in 2008, is still introducing himself to voters.
Kashkari, who won 19 percent of the vote Tuesday, had to put $2.1 million of his own money into an ad blitz to best tea party Republican Tim Donnelly. His digs at Brown -- blaming him for "the destruction of the middle class" and relentless pursuit of a "crazy train" high-speed rail project -- aren't getting much traction beyond the GOP, preferred by only 28 percent of California voters.
Perhaps Kashkari's glimmer of hope is that the nation's political history is dotted with upsets that prove no pundit can predict all the possibilities.
History also shows that sudden scandals can destroy once-unassailable candidates.
But Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College professor of politics, said the chance of Brown facing "personal scandal is almost nonexistent -- he's just not a personal-scandal kind of guy; he's never been interested in enriching himself."
"And at his age," Pitney added drolly, "other types of scandal seem unlikely."
Pitney said there's always a chance someone in Brown's administration could get caught with a hand in the cookie jar -- "that's just the nature of government" -- but it would take widespread corruption to tar Brown's name.
Yet Brown's decades of squeaky-clean image would probably carry him through even that, said Corey Cook, director of the University of San Francisco's Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good.
"He's never been a transactional politician -- those are the people who get themselves in trouble," Cook said, referring to the kind of horse trading and mutual back-scratching embraced by many but eschewed by Brown.
Pitney said the only opening he sees for Kashkari would be "a sudden economic downturn, which could rapidly darken the state's fiscal outlook, particularly if the stock market crashes." California's disproportionate dependence on capital gains taxes means a market crash could send the budget from black to red fast, he said, and Kashkari "could argue the state government's prosperity has been an illusion."
But Cook contends that even then, most voters would probably prefer an experienced hand at the helm to manage the crisis.
Steve Boilard, director of CSU Sacramento's Center for California Studies, noted that with state revenues still exceeding expectations and Brown's May budget revision looking fairly rosy, the next big checkup won't come until the Legislative Analyst's Office issues its fiscal forecast in November -- after the election.
"I want to believe that the voters can choose whomever they want and nothing is ever a foregone conclusion," Boilard said, "but I really just don't see any realistic scenario in which a majority of the public would say, 'We don't like the job Jerry is doing.'"
There's always the possibility of his untimely demise. Still, a candidate who's entitled to appear on the general election ballot remains on the ballot even after death, and if he or she gets the most votes, "he or she shall be considered elected to that office," state law says.
The seat, of course, would then be deemed vacant, and the lieutenant governor would take over.
Given California's left-of-center proclivities, there's a good chance that most voters would pick a dead Brown (and, by extension, probably a live Gavin Newsom) over a live Kashkari.
"Such things have happened," Pitney said, noting that U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., lost his seat to Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan in 2000, weeks after Carnahan perished in a plane crash. In fact, Pitney -- a former GOP staffer and policy analyst -- says his very first political campaign was on behalf of a dead sheriff in New York's Saratoga County.
"We framed it as a tribute," he said.
Boilard, tongue firmly in cheek, said he sees only one way Brown won't win re-election: an asteroid hitting Earth.
"It's an outside chance," Boilard said, "but I think it's the best chance that those who want to see Jerry Brown leave would have."
Few think Republican Neel Kashkari has any chance of unseating Gov. Jerry Brown in November. But history has shown that sometimes polls and pundits get it wrong:
1948 presidential election: Incumbent Democrat Harry Truman lost all nine of the Gallup Poll's post-convention surveys. And although Truman showed gains, few political analysts thought he had any chance of beating Republican nominee Thomas Dewey. Truman's huge win -- 303 Electoral College votes to Dewey's 189 -- was punctuated by the famous photo of a victorious Truman holding aloft a copy of Chicago Daily Tribune with a "Dewey defeats Truman" headline.
1991 Pennsylvania U.S. Senate election: When GOP Sen. John Heinz died in a plane crash, the governor named Democrat Harris Wofford to fill the seat until a special election. Polls showed the long-winded and underfunded Wofford trailing Republican former governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh by as much as 40 points. But Wofford's ability to connect with working-class voters, and his ability to tie Thornburgh to the increasingly unpopular presidency of George H.W. Bush, took pundits by surprise: Wofford won by 10 percentage points.
1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election -- Polls said Democrat Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III had the upper hand over Republican Norm Coleman. But when Election Day arrived, former professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura -- who had run a shoestring, grass-roots campaign as a Reform Party candidate -- had sneaked up and body-slammed both the major-party candidates into submission. Many of his votes apparently came out of Humphrey's camp, leaving the Democrat in third place.
2006 Virginia U.S. Senate election -- Polls showed incumbent Republican George Allen was headed for a second term right up until August, when he was caught on videotape using an ethnic slur against a staffer from Democratic challenger Jim Webb's campaign. His lead instantly narrowed, though he still led in the polls through late October. But when the dust cleared, Webb won by three-tenths of a percentage point.
2008 Louisiana 2nd Congressional District election -- Incumbent Democrat William Jefferson won in 2006 even after the FBI raided his offices in a corruption probe. He was sworn in for his ninth term in January 2007 and indicted by a federal grand jury five months later. He still beat six challengers in 2008's Democratic primary, but low turnout helped Republican Anh "Joseph" Cao oust him that December despite it being one of the nation's most heavily Democratic districts. Jefferson, convicted in 2009, began serving his 13-year sentence in 2012.