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In an underdog campaign for governor, Donnelly expresses high hopes

The Republican says a swath of California voters made up of disaffected Democrats and independents will respond to his message.

February 11, 2014|By Seema Mehta

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Tim Donnelly aimed a Glock 19 at a paper target, the image of a zombie dressed as a British Redcoat, and fired.

All but one of 15 rounds hit their mark. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, taking practice with a handful of gun aficionados as he campaigned in Northern California, was pleased.

"That was fun," said Donnelly, an assemblyman from the Inland Empire. "He is one dead Redcoat."

The pierced target was a fitting symbol for the gun rights advocate and tea party favorite, who says his first run for office was inspired by the same fears of tyranny that stirred the colonists to rise up against the British.

Like the colonists, Donnelly is hoping his scrappy, underfunded campaign — one that is, at best, quixotic — can defeat far better armed and more sophisticated establishment forces.

His kitted-out campaign bus sports the slogan "Patriot Not Politician." His audiences are tiny, and he's mostly preaching to the choir. But on the second day of a 40-city bus tour that kicked off last week, Donnelly, in his omnipresent cowboy hat and black Assembly jacket, said he was thrilled at the turnout.

"I was really blown away by the support," he said, greeting about a dozen voters at an oceanside park in Monterey. "I'm not Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm not going to get 3,000 people."

He also lacks money, reporting only about $54,000 in campaign cash in his most recent disclosures. Donnelly collected $374,000 in 2013; rival Republican Neel Kashkari raised $900,000 in two weeks in January.

Donnelly, 47, has been trying to compensate by taking his case directly to voters, meeting supporters in "Got Liberty?" T-shirts at GOP dinners and mixers, at gun ranges and gas stations, since he announced his run last fall. The person-to-person effort, a strategy that has helped propel candidates to victory in smaller venues such as the Iowa caucuses, is a steep uphill battle in a state of 38 million.

Add to that the state's cobalt blue tilt and incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's $17-million war chest, and many Republicans have abandoned hope of taking back the governor's seat.

Donnelly, who is perhaps best known for being caught with a handgun at airport security, denies the naysayers.

"There's something in the air," he said after leaving Pebble Beach golf course, where he met with a nonprofit that helps disabled veterans. Californians are frustrated, he said: Many are still hurting, and people want government out of their lives.

"In order to capitalize on this opportunity, to seize the moment, you really have to have a message that resonates," he said.

Donnelly is among the most conservative politicians in California. He opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage and points with pride to his frequent "no" votes in the Legislature. On occasion, though, a few people who don't share his social views come to his events to say they, too, are unnerved by what he says are excessive tax rates, onerous regulations and a belief that the state balanced its budget by stealing from cities.

"That is so outrageous," said Nancy Amadeo, a self-described centrist Democrat who sits on the City Council of Marina, just north of Monterey.

She said she was undecided about whom to support in the gubernatorial contest but was impressed by Donnelly's message.

"He has an uphill battle, but if he can present his positions and forget the [GOP] platform," he has a greater chance of success, Amadeo said.

On the stump, Donnelly concentrates on his message that the Golden State is no longer golden, that the quality of life is declining. He worries about a 31-year-old son, one of his five children, who can't find work.

The California dream that lured Donnelly west at 19, listening to the Beach Boys as he drove a VW Bug from his childhood home in Michigan, is at risk of being irrevocably destroyed, he says.

"I was going to a place where the only limit on your dreams was what you could imagine, and how hard you were willing to work," he told Republican activists over steaming plates of fettuccine Alfredo at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Roseville.

"My kids, they will never have that same opportunity to … start with nothing and build a business, because the government has become the greatest threat, the greatest impediment to their future," he said.

Donnelly, who started a plastics company before running for the Assembly, said that as governor he would impose a moratorium on new business regulations and veto legislation that infringed on liberties.

His first foray into political activism was to protect those liberties, Donnelly said: forming a Minuteman border patrol chapter in 2005, scanning the landscape with a .45-caliber handgun at his hip.

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