California’s New Republican Boss

Tony Quinn
Editor, California Target Book

Neel Kashkari is the Republican candidate for governor because of the efforts of a mild mannered, bow-tied Stanford University physicist named Charles Munger Jr.  Munger is also responsible for the defeat and retirement of several powerful California members of Congress, and he is the major funding source keeping the California Republican Party afloat.  Not bad for a guy almost no one has ever heard of.

Munger has become the major funding source for a moribund and nearly broke state GOP, investing some $2 million in favored candidates this spring alone.  The obviously wealthy physicist did not make this money as a Stanford professor, but through the very good luck of the being the son of Charles Munger Sr., senior partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway.  The 90-year-old senior Munger ranks number 1,432 on the Forbes list of world billionaires.

Munger’s entry into state politics came via the arcane issue of redistricting.  In 2004, he was helping a Republican in an Assembly race in the Bay Area when he saw that his candidate had no chance to win because the district had been gerrymandered to elect a Democrat. So Munger became a supporter of redistricting reform, and in 2010 he put $12 million of his money behind a ballot measure to take redistricting of congressional seats out of the hands of the legislature.

He won and in 2011 the Citizens Redistricting Commission redrew the state’s congressional districts in a way not at all helpful to powerful incumbents.  One big loser was Democratic Rep. Howard Berman who had been chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and was a key supporter of Israel in Congress.

In prior redistrictings, Berman had always been safe because his brother, Michael Berman, drew the districts for the legislature.  Now Michael was out, and Howard ended up in a district with another incumbent and lost.  His close ally, powerful Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, also got a bad district, and had his first close race in 40 years in 2012.  He is now retiring.

So Munger’s decision to fund a measure taking congressional redistricting away from the legislature has already had a profound effect on the politics and power in the California congressional delegation.

But Munger’s greatest effect has been in internal Republican Party politics.  His first foray into partisan politics was 2012 when he supported several candidates in the primary and general elections, and worked against Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax hike.  Most Munger candidates in 2012 lost and the tax increase passed, but Munger was undeterred and in June this year, he finally made his mark.

A month out from the June primary, Neel Kashkari was running at a dismal two percent in the polls, one poll even had him trailing a convicted sex offender. Republican voices around the country began warning that if Assemblyman Tim Donnelly with his harsh rhetoric on immigrants were the GOP candidate for governor he would drag down the ticket in November.  But what to do?  Most Republican voters knew nothing about Kashkari and Donnelly was leading in the polls.

To the rescue came Charles Munger.  He paid for “An Urgent Warning from Gov. Pete Wilson about Candidate Tim Donnelly,” a tough attack on Donnelly for being on probation and his extreme statements that also boosted Kashkari as “the right choice to take on Jerry Brown.”  The mailer did the trick and Kashkari topped Donnelly in the primary.  Without Munger’s last minute funding of this piece, it is doubtful Kashkari would have won.

This June Munger began what is probably a long process to reshape the state GOP by supporting with major independent expenditures centrist candidates for the legislature in the top two primary.  And Munger had some notable victories, the most important being Bonnie Garcia for the state senate.

Garcia, a former Assemblywoman, was once called as Hot Latina by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.  She should now be called a Lucky Latina.  She was up against three other Republicans for the Senate in a newly drawn safe GOP district in Riverside County.  But Garcia and two other candidates were from eastern Riverside; only one candidate was from the vote rich western part of the county.  That candidate, County Supervisor Jeff Stone, was expected to run first in the primary and did so; leaving Garcia and the others to struggle for the second spot.

Garcia was very lucky that in this district with a 33 percent Democratic registration two Democrats ran, splitting that vote.  But that would not have been enough without Munger’s political action committee, Spirit of Democracy California, spending $485,000 independently for Garcia.  She nabbed the second spot by only 449 votes.  Without the Munger spending she would almost certainly not have been in the runoff.

But now Garcia has an excellent chance to win the November contest with Stone as Latinos account for nearly a quarter of registered voters and she should be able to pull cross over votes in November.  And one might anticipate seeing more Munger money in the fall.

Munger also managed to win in the San Bernardino County seat Donnelly abandoned for his unsuccessful governor’s race.  Jay Obernolte, supported by $258,000 in Munger independent expenditures, ran first among eight Republican candidates and is on his way to Sacramento.

Munger was also a major backer of Republican Catharine Baker who is in a runoff in an East Bay suburban district.  Here Munger’s support collided with that of the business community, which spent several million dollars supporting pro-business Democrat Steve Glazer against a former head of the teacher union.  But Baker’s candidacy managed to keep Glazer from getting sufficient Republican cross over votes to make the runoff.

Not all the Munger candidates have the Midas touch.  In a political case of dogs not liking the dog food, $393,000 in Munger money could not keep Orange County GOP Assembly hopeful Anna Bryson from running fifth out of five candidates.

But Munger is now a force that is here to stay, because he is willing to put major dollars behind candidates he favors, and against those he thinks would be bad for the state and for his party.  And he is about the only person doing this. The Donnelly candidacy, where he raised virtually no money, shows that the right wing in California politics no longer has a financial base, and many of the party’s traditional establishment funding sources have given up on it.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and into the vacuum of financing Republican candidates has stepped Mr. Munger.  Given his successes in June 2014, he is now the dominant force reshaping the Republican Party in California.

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