Former Gov. Pete Wilson urged California Republicans on Thursday not to support Tim Donnelly, the party's frontrunner in the gubernatorial race, saying his theatrics and personal controversies would drag down other Republicans on the ballot in the fall.
"Keeping public focus on the real and important issues facing California will require a candidate who does not have to defend Tim Donnelly's bizarre votes and statements or his irresponsible personal behavior," Wilson said in a letter first published on the conservative blog FlashReport.org. "With Tim Donnelly on the ballot, it would be a losing campaign, risking injury to our party and our state, and to other Republican candidates who deserve to win."
Wilson, who has endorsed Donnelly's main Republican opponent, Neel Kashkari, is the latest prominent Republican to publicly rebuke Donnelly. Many members of the GOP's political and professional classes fear Donnelly, a tea party favorite, could damage the party's effort to attract independent voters and minorities if he finishes first among Republicans in the June 3 primary election and advances to a runoff against Gov. Jerry Brown in the fall.
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, said "Donnelly is no longer a viable option for California voters," and the Lincoln Club of Orange County this week approved a vote of no confidence in Donnelly.
Wilson said in an interview Thursday that he was disturbed by Donnelly's past criminal cases. Donnelly has blamed a larceny case in Michigan in 1985 on a drunken "prank," while the assemblyman more recently pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors after carrying a loaded gun into Ontario International Airport in 2012.
Donnelly, a former member of anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project, has also sparked controversy for his recent attempt to tie Kashkari to Islamic law.
"Most recently the thing that I found offensive, offensive notwithstanding its stupidity," Wilson said, "was attempting to, by implication, assert that Neel Kashkari is someone who has supported Shariah law."
In a meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle's editorial board on Wednesday, Donnelly said elite Republicans are out of touch because "they're too busy golfing or drinking together," the newspaper reported.
"When the GOP is taking about the threat (I pose), they're right," Donnelly said, according to the newspaper. "I'm a threat to the country-club Republicans. I'm a danger because I might bring a little more country into the club."
Wilson, a former U.S. senator, assemblyman and San Diego mayor, chaired Meg Whitman's failed gubernatorial campaign in 2010. His early endorsement of Whitman in that race was significant in the GOP primary, including for his declaration she would be "tough as nails" on illegal immigration.
But Wilson has been viewed as less of a public asset to Republican candidates in general elections. Many Latino voters still have a visceral reaction to Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative, later overturned by the courts, Wilson championed to restrict public services to undocumented immigrants.
Donnelly leads Kashkari by a wide margin in public opinion polls. The two Republicans will meet Thursday night in Anaheim for their only scheduled debate ahead of the primary election. Donnelly's campaign RV was parked outside the hotel and supporters were parking in the parking lot hours ahead of the highly-anticipated head-to-head.
PHOTO: Former California Gov. Pete Wilson give a thumbs up while looking at his PDA during the start of the Republican National Convention in 2008. Brian Baer/The Sacramento Bee