Tim Donnelly is campaigning for governor, and he’s not wearing any pants.
The 48-year-old Republican assemblyman is in the back seat of a parked black SUV. He’s wriggling out of the suit he wore to talk to a group at an Orange County country club, and into a pair of jeans he’ll wear to go door to door in a nearby neighborhood that afternoon.
As Donnelly changes, a woman who had listened to his speech walks up to the vehicle and drops two $20 bills into the cowboy boots he had slipped off and left on the parking lot pavement. She had come to the event with concerns about the new federal Common Core education standards, and had apparently been satisfied to hear about Donnelly’s no-holds-barred opposition to the initiative.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Donnelly when he got out of the truck and found the cash in his boots. “I guess we’re going to have gas.”
This is the Donnelly campaign in a nutshell — it isn’t pretty, it’s being run off an iPhone from the driver’s seat of an SUV, and it can sure use $40 cash infusions. Donnelly’s last campaign finance report showed he barely had enough cash on hand to pay the annual salary of a single minimum-wage employee.
And yet, with less than a month to go before the June primary, it’s Donnelly — not former Bush administration official Neel Kashkari — who is viewed as the favorite to advance and face Gov. Jerry Brown on the fall ballot. Seventeen percent of likely voters supported Donnelly in the last Field Poll. Kashkari, who ran the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program, clocked in at just 2 percent. While TARP may have saved the country from a depression, the 12-figure bailout remains toxic among conservative voters.
“What we’re doing is not trying to elect a different guy with a better haircut,” Donnelly had told a group of 30 campaign volunteers that morning. “We’re trying to unite people under a banner of liberty. And it’s liberty that matters. This is individual liberty. This was the cause of the first revolution.”
And this is certainly not good news from the Republican Party establishment’s point of view. “I think Republican Party leaders, donors, candidates, elected representatives — a great number of them would be alarmed if Donnelly is representing the Republicans in the fall against Gov. Brown,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican strategist who isn’t affiliated with either Donnelly or Kashkari. Republican leaders are concerned about Donnelly for a range of reasons — but primarily because of Donnelly’s history as a leader of the controversial Minuteman movement.
‘California Is Occupied Territory’
It’s a windy day in the eastern San Diego County town of Jacumba. Tumbleweed is skipping across the desert and piling up against the fence guarding the United States-Mexico border. Immigration reform advocate Enrique Morones points to the spot where the fence abruptly ends, and to the white Border Patrol jeep slowly making its way along the structure. This is the spot where Morones and his Border Angels group confronted Donnelly and his Minutemen, who were there to symbolically guard the border against undocumented immigrants trying to cross into the country.
Donnelly was part of the initial group of Minutemen who massed along the Arizona border in April 2005. Founder Jim Gilchrist said the initial goal was to bring attention to undocumented immigrants who were crossing the border illegally. “If you want to bring attention to an issue or a matter, or create public debate, create the largest dog-and-pony show you can about the issue,” Gilchrist said. “I set out to bring as many Americans … to the border as I possibly could.”
Donnelly kept a journal during his Arizona experience. He read part of it on air in a 2005 MSNBC documentary. “Somewhere out here our quarry awaits,” he wrote at one point. “It is good to feel the sun on my face while the morning chill is still fresh on my skin. It is cold out here in the desert at night. I have a sense I might make history.”
In October 2005, Donnelly organized his own border watch in Jacumba. “My goal was to leverage the media,” he said, into paying more attention to border issues. “California is occupied territory,” he told MSNBC at the time. “We are no longer part of the United States in any recognizable regard.”
Morones and his Border Angels group met Donnelly and the other armed volunteers with counter-demonstrations. “This was the worst of the American spirit,” Morones recalled. “Racism being played out as if it was a game. With these beer-drinking, gun-toting racists along the border.” Nearly a decade later, the Minutemen are long gone. But Morones still drives along the border, placing jugs of water in the desert to help people making the crossing.
Donnelly, of course, rejects the racist claim. He says his stand was about laws, not race. He points to Latino supporters backing his current run, and people like an African-American woman who came up to him during the country club event to voice concerns about Common Core. “Everybody wants to put me in a box. Look at all the people that come up to me, that talk to me,” he said. “They’re the wrong color, according to the newspaper. I’m not supposed to be winning among minorities — particularly Latinos. And yet I have a tremendous following.” Indeed, Donnelly did have more Latino support than Kashkari in the last round of polls — though it was still in the single digits.
Deeply-held Conservative Views
Since his time with the Minutemen, Donnelly has reinvented himself as a Republican assemblyman representing the San Bernardino County community of Twin Peaks. He’s maintained his firm views on immigration, opposing recent laws granting in-state college tuition and driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Donnelly has also made the Second Amendment and gun rights a premier cause, and has developed a reputation for raising conservative concerns about nearly every bill that makes its way through the Assembly.
Donnelly doesn’t pull punches. Last summer he told a Yolo County tea party group that “Obamacare was just a Trojan horse to introduce full-blown socialism” into the country. At this spring’s Republican convention, he called Gov. Jerry Brown “a Marxist-progressive parading as a Democrat.”
But that doesn’t mean Donnelly’s angry. He calls for more civility in politics, and often delivers his speeches with a smirk or a grin. “No – he’s a Marxist-progressive parading as a Democrat,” he said about Brown. “Doesn’t mean I can’t like him and want to have a beer with him.”
In fact, Donnelly can be pretty funny. He loves to do Bill Clinton impressions, alternating between “I feel your pain” and “I … do not … recall.”
The open question among political observers is whether Donnelly’s strong showing in the polls is a ceiling or a floor, and whether he can expand his base beyond tea party conservatives. Donnelly is convinced it’s a floor, and that he can win over California’s majority of independent and Democratic voters by talking about economic issues, such as Toyota’s decision to move a major plant from Southern California to Texas. “The very first thing that I would have done as governor — I would have actually shown up, and been in their boardroom, invited or not, and said, ‘What’s going on? Why are you leaving? What was the final straw? What can we do to keep you here?’ ”
Donnelly is also pushing to expand California’s film tax credits in order to stop the exodus of film work to states like Georgia and Pennsylvania, which offer companies major financial incentives to shoot on location. He made a point to knock on Democrats’ and independents’ doors when he canvassed Orange County neighborhoods.
No Love Lost Between Donnelly and Republican Leaders
But for every broader economic theme, there are statements and stances that could alienate voters. Last week he accused his Hindu opponent, Neel Kashkari, of supporting Sharia, or Islamic law, during his tenure at the Treasury Department. Many observers viewed that as an attempt to insinuate that Kashkari is Muslim, and Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, a conservative firebrand himself, called it “hateful and ignorant garbage.”
If Republican leaders think Donnelly and his tea party views would hurt the party’s brand, Donnelly is happy to return the favor.. He told an Orange County voter that the Democratic and Republican parties “both suck.” Speaking to reporters in Sacramento, Donnelly said, “Political parties aren’t the answer. They’re the problem. I really haven’t seen them do anything that’s of any significance — that’s advancing the cause of liberty forward.”
But even if he’s on his own, Donnelly has a good shot at topping Kashkari in June. The most recent Field Poll had him leading the former Bush and Obama administration official by 15 points among likely voters. Kashkari has begun to spend more money on advertising to raise his name ID, establish his conservative bonafides and raise questions about Donnelly’s character.
But Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said voters who turn out next month will likely be older, whiter and more conservative than California’s overall population.
And those just happen to be the groups where Tim Donnelly has the most support.