Tim Donnelly video goes viral in California governor’s race, but what’s the message?
01/28/2014 12:00 AM
03/30/2014 11:58 AM
The language violates typical standards of political discourse, but gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly’s latest Web ad has attracted enough viewers to populate the cities of Berkeley or Vallejo.
It’s a continued strategy for a politician without enough money to buy television: Be outrageous enough to go viral.
Donnelly talks about himself and his positions in English, while actress Maria Conchita Alonso “translates” in Spanish. His talk includes a string of bleeps to imply his opinions on taxation are too foul for viewers’ ears. Her translation doesn’t bother with such niceties, as she gesticulates to emphasize part of Donnelly’s anatomy, saying “He has big ones, and he is angry.”
“Is the Colbert show behind his candidacy?” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “He just seems like the gift that keeps giving to late-night comics.”
It might amount to nothing more than that if Donnelly, a Twin Peaks assemblyman, did not have a credible chance of representing the Republican Party in a November runoff election against Gov. Jerry Brown.
The tea party favorite is woefully underfunded and trails the Democratic governor by huge margins both in fundraising and early polls. But the race for second place in the June primary is wide open.
So while Brown gave his State of the State address and Neel Kashkari, a moderate Republican, entered the race for governor in recent days, Donnelly produced an inexpensive video and kept in sight by fanning the spark he caught online.
“Over and over and over again, we did probably more interviews than I have ever done in a single weekend,” Donnelly said last week. “All publicizing an ad.”
The video in question is a bilingual spot in which Donnelly, dressed in a jacket, jeans and a cowboy hat, espouses libertarian values while actress Alonso translates in Spanish, paraphrasing for effect.
“I want a gun in every Californian’s gun safe,” Donnelly tells the camera, and “the government out of our businesses and our bedrooms.”
“He has big ones, and he is angry.”
It took three tries for Donnelly to generate this much interest in anything he has put online, though two previous videos are also unusual. In one, Donnelly says he wants to make California “the sexiest place to do business” and objects to being called “white,” saying, “I’m a fleshy, pinkish tone.”
In the other video, Donnelly’s campaign manager, Jennifer Kerns, is filmed running, smoking a cigar and talking about Pearl Harbor, prison realignment and Chappaquiddick. The connections are not fully explained.
The bilingual ad gained heightened attention because of backlash against Alonso for her support of Donnelly, the Legislature’s most outspoken opponent of illegal immigration and a former member of the Minuteman Project, which unofficially monitors the U.S.-Mexico border. The Cuban-born actress said she resigned from a play in San Francisco under pressure, leading to First Amendment discussions airing alongside clips of Donnelly’s ad on TV news.
As an attention-getter, the video has been a hit. Less certain is the impression it will leave.
“It’s easy to get publicity when you go into the town square and drop your pants, but is that the right kind of publicity?” said Ray McNally, a Republican political consultant.
He said he appreciated Donnelly’s effort to show personality when most candidates “are such slaves to polls.” But he said, “I’m not sure it makes him look gubernatorial.”
Fred Davis is the Republican ad maker who created “Demon Sheep,” a 2010 spot for U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina that featured a sheep-costumed man with glowing red eyes and became a paragon for odd political Internet advertising. Davis said Donnelly has “sort of set his brand as the kook brand … Do you think anybody looks at that ad and thinks this is the guy to lead a multibillion-dollar enterprise? I don’t think so.”
Davis, who was involved last year in former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado’s now-abandoned campaign for governor, said, “You have to do two things with this viral stuff. No. 1, you have to attract attention. He has done that in spades … But No. 2, you have to have a message that would get people to vote for you, and I don’t think he’s done that.”
Donnelly has reported raising only about $220,000 and is not widely known outside his legislative district. For a candidate of such limited means, avenues to increased name recognition are few. The hope for an online ad is that it takes off, raising one’s viability and inspiring potential donors.
“I think he’ll be doing everything he can to be viral,” Kousser said, adding, “It’s worth doing.”
Donnelly said the video was made “to start a conversation.” He tells the camera that “politicians and big government are killing our prosperity,” driving businesses out of California, increasing welfare costs and reducing the quality of education. He says he wants “to create a tsunami of jobs by unleashing California’s natural resources and shutting down the bureaucratic over-regulation.”
Humor “crosses a lot of barriers,” Donnelly said, “and my goal is to have a conversation with everyone who cares about the state of California.”
In a state in which Republicans hold no statewide office and party registration has fallen below 30 percent, Donnelly points to the number of clicks his video has registered. Most of the time in California, he said, “conservatives don’t get their message out effectively.”
Donnelly reported receiving $25,000 from Alonso’s company this month. That is a substantial contribution for Donnelly, but it could not buy anywhere near as much exposure as Alonso’s in-person appearances have.
Interviewed on Fox’s “The Kelly File” one recent evening, Alonso said she had “no idea that Tim was with the tea party,” but that she doesn’t have to agree with him on everything to support him.
The conversation quickly turned to criticism Alonso faced from some Latinos over her support of Donnelly. The actress, who was scheduled to appear in a Spanish-language version of “The Vagina Monologues” next month, said she resigned after protesters threatened a boycott.
But Alonso hoped the swirl of controversy could help the production, as it has Donnelly’s campaign. In this, she suggested a parallel: “I hope this brings a lot of people to go see the show.”
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