On the third day of his campaign for governor, Tim Donnelly wheeled north through the Central Valley in a borrowed RV, alighting in Stockton, where three supporters waited outside City Hall.
The city’s mayor, who was listed as a “special guest,” arrived late and said he would not be “giving an endorsement at this time,” while two businessmen who happened by wondered aloud who this candidate might be.
Such is the inauspicious state of the Republican Party’s effort to unseat Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. Donnelly, the Legislature’s most outspoken gun-rights and anti-illegal-immigration advocate, is notorious for carrying a loaded handgun into an airport last year, while rival Abel Maldonado faltered in the race’s earliest stages, splitting with his original advisers before recasting his campaign.
Yet as the two Republicans forged ahead in recent weeks – with a push by Maldonado at the California Republican Party’s fall convention and Donnelly’s formal announcement this week that he will run – the significance of the race for second place came more clearly into view.
No matter how far behind Brown any Republican may place in the primary election in June, one candidate will survive to challenge the frontrunner in November. Though Brown is widely expected to win that contest, political fortunes can turn for any number of reasons between a primary and a fall runoff.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Donnelly said when asked if he thought he could finish first in June. “As long as you’re in the top two, you advance.”
Donnelly, a state assemblyman from Twin Peaks, and Maldonado, a former state lawmaker and lieutenant governor, are the only Republicans to announce their candidacies so far. Other prospective candidates include former U.S. Treasury Department official Neel Kashkari, who has not yet said whether he will run.
Of the three men, Donnelly is by far the most conservative. The former member of the anti-illegal immigration Minuteman Project gained entry to the Legislature three years ago, after Republican Assemblyman Anthony Adams of Hesperia voted to temporarily increase taxes as part of a 2009 budget deal. The tax accord – in which Maldonado, a moderate, also participated – alienated conservative elements of the Republican Party. Though Adams survived a recall effort, he did not seek a third term. Donnelly, with a rush of tea party support, beat a field of more established Republicans to win.
“I ran for office because my assemblyman decided he wanted to sell us out on a tax increase,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly’s frustration with Brown and the Democratic Legislature manifests itself in apocalyptic campaign videos and lengthy speeches on the Assembly floor. His RV is emblazoned with the slogan “Patriot not politician,” an appeal to disaffected members of the electorate.
“It sounds like you’re really mad at the government,” Donnelly said he told a prospective donor earlier this year. “If you want to screw the government, write me a big, fat check.”
Donnelly and Maldonado have each reported meager fundraising, with Donnelly raising about $100,000 this year.
Brown has not yet said whether he will seek re-election, but he is expected to. The third-term governor has raised more than $12.5million and has endeared himself to wealthy business interests and labor unions capable of pouring millions of dollars more into his campaign.
Donnelly said financial shortcomings can be overcome “if you have the right message and you’re actually able to effectively organize a guerrilla grass-roots campaign.”
But as he finished a chicken sandwich at a Carl’s Jr. off Interstate 5 on Thursday, he stepped back into his RV with a list of donors to call.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to ask for ridiculous amounts of money,” he said.
Donnelly, 47, was born in Georgia, grew up in Michigan and moved to California to attend college in 1985. At the time, he said, “you would have called me a liberal.” But as he married, moved to a house in San Bernardino County and started a manufacturing supply business, his views shifted right.
“When I first came (to California) I had like 300 bucks in my pocket, and a decade later I had my own business and, you know, was married with five kids, the American dream,” Donnelly said. “Now you look at it, it seems like everybody you know is leaving or has a plan to leave. They’re seeking opportunity outside the state. Something has radically changed.”
Donnelly’s Assembly district, which runs up against the Nevada and Arizona borders, is a safe Republican enclave in a state in which the GOP has fallen out of favor. Republicans hold no statewide office, and the party’s voter registration has dropped below 30percent. The growing influence of Latino voters in statewide races has beleaguered Republican candidates – even those who do not have Minuteman credentials to overcome.
Donnelly focuses where he can on the economy, peppering his initial campaign stops with sound bite-ready jabs at Brown – the governor is a “dinosaur” or a “bad flu” – and with references to the state’s high poverty rate and unemployment. He said he will push to lower income taxes, but he demurred when asked how much.
A spokeswoman, Jennifer Kerns, said, “We’re putting together a policy kitchen cabinet we’ll be announcing in the coming weeks.”
When Maldonado began campaigning earlier this year, he paired his run with an initiative to repeal California’s prison realignment program, in which the Brown administration shifted responsibility for certain low-level offenders to counties. Donnelly is backing an effort to recall a handful of lawmakers who supported gun control legislation this year.
It was only last year that Donnelly pleaded no contest to two misdemeanor gun charges related to the discovery of a loaded firearm in his carry-on bag at Ontario International Airport. Donnelly, who was fined and placed on probation for three years, said he forgot the gun was in his bag.
He poked fun at the incident in an online video this week. In a clip of dinner with his family, one of Donnelly’s teenage sons says, “I’m a way better shot than my dad, and I don’t take guns on planes.”
The video, in which Donnelly proposes making California “the sexiest place to do business” and says he is not white but a “fleshy, pinkish tone,” appeared by Friday afternoon to have been viewed about 4,425 times.
Donnelly said it has prompted potential supporters to give him a “second look.”
Maldonado and Donnelly have yet to engage each other directly, and Brown has been dismissive of them both.
Dan Newman, a political spokesman for the governor, called the Republican field “a ragtag collection of misfit toys.”