By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown, a popular Democrat, will debate his long-shot Republican opponent Thursday night, kicking off the state's election season early with anticipated scuffles over education, high-speed rail and the state's economy.
Brown, who served two terms as governor from 1975 to 1983, returned to the state's highest office four years ago, and now seeks his fourth term at the helm of the most populous U.S. state with high approval ratings and a rapidly recovering economy.
His opponent, former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari, has had difficulty raising funds for his campaign in the lopsidedly Democratic state, keeping his campaign going with $2 million of his own funds.
That hasn't stopped Kashkari, 41, who oversaw the federal government's Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bank bailout after the 2008 financial crisis, from taking frequent pot-shots at the 76-year-old Brown. He has needled the Democrat to face him in a debate.
Kashkari trailed Brown by about 20 points in the latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California. Including his own contributions, he had raised $4.5 million from Jan. 1 through June 30, closing the period with less than $200,000 in campaign cash on hand, state records show.
Brown, by contrast, raised $5.7 million during the same period, ending June with more than $22 million in cash, campaign records show.
The two are expected to trade barbs over the state's move last week to challenge a controversial court decision striking down five laws that offer job protections to teachers, which Kashkari criticized this week as indicating that the governor is too close to the state's powerful teachers' unions.
The ruling, a major setback for teacher unions that could also have national implications, came in response to a lawsuit filed by education reform groups on behalf of nine students. The groups alleged the job protections hurt poor and minority students by effectively funneling incompetent teachers to schools in disadvantaged areas at disproportional rates.
The debate, hosted by The Los Angeles Times, San Francisco public broadcasting station KQED, Telemundo and the cable service California Channel, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Thursday in the state capital of Sacramento.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Dan Grebler)