As GOP gubernatorial candidate
"I could talk about the 2nd Amendment, but you guys all know what I think of that," the avid gun rights advocate said.
The hundreds of people gathered in a historic theater to hear him chuckled affectionately. They indeed knew his views: Donnelly has forged deep ties with the most ardent members of his party, honing them as a Minuteman leader, as one of the most conservative members of the Legislature and as he has barnstormed the state for 16 months in an RV bearing his campaign slogan: "Patriot not Politician."
That has paid off so far. Despite the lack of a war chest, a string of controversies and vocal denouncements from leaders of his own party, he has led in the polls among those competing in the June 3 primary to challenge Gov. Jerry Brown, the overwhelming front-runner, in the fall.
In a state of 38 million residents, Donnelly's campaign lacks all the hallmarks of a successful effort. There is no television advertising, no flurry of glossy mail ads and not much staff.
His bid is a stark contrast to recent gubernatorial races, which have featured a movie star, a billionaire and a storied Democratic politician.
"This is totally a guerrilla operation," said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and a former national GOP official, who said he could not recall such a campaign by a serious statewide candidate in four decades.
The San Bernardino County lawmaker is "communicating with people by social media, talking to groups, campaigning on the grapevine. In a high-turnout election, that wouldn't be enough," Pitney said.
But comparatively few voters are expected at the polls next week, and "in an extremely low-turnout election, that gives him a serious chance," he said.
Donnelly conceded that whether his supporters will make up enough of the electorate to push him to success in the primary is the "$64,000 question."
"I think on June 3 we're going to find out if grass-roots is something more than just a little bit of cream frosting on top of a wonderful carrot cake, and if it can be a serious part — even the backbone — of a campaign," he said in an interview after the Riverside speech. "And I'm excited."
Donnelly's main GOP rival, first-time candidate Neel Kashkari, has raised millions of dollars and racked up high-profile endorsements. He is appearing in television ads and sending high-propensity voters a slew of mail brochures that tout his candidacy and attack Donnelly.
But when the two men appear before the same audience, as they did in Fresno recently, the inroads Donnelly has made among core GOP voters is on display.
Speaking at a Republican women's lunch, both men laced their biographies with their standard stump speeches, criticizing the state's laws, taxes and regulations as overly burdensome, opposing the high-speed rail plan that Brown champions and detailing their plans to improve the economy and schools.
Donnelly hammered his opposition to the controversial education standards embodied in Common Core, one of the niche issues that he has highlighted on the campaign trail and that is emerging as a touchstone for conservatives. But otherwise, much of their content was the same, though the reception was not.
Several in attendance said they planned to cast ballots for Donnelly or already had.
"Mr. Kashkari is very charismatic and interesting, [but] I didn't know anything about him.… He, to me, came out of nowhere. I didn't know who he was," said Sandra Burton, 64, a retired county employee.
"Mr. Donnelly had been here several months ago; that's when I went to a small luncheon with him," she said. "I was very impressed; he's down to earth. I think he has a good connection."
Burton cast her mail ballot the previous week for Donnelly.
"It comes down to personality, and maybe one seeming more Republican than another," she said, noting that Kashkari had once voted for President Obama, a subject raised at the lunch.
Among voters statewide, Donnelly may be known for trying to link Kashkari to fundamentalist Islamic law, for harsh rhetoric about illegal immigrants and for being on probation, stemming from an episode in which he took a loaded gun to LA/Ontario International Airport (he said he forgot it was in his carry-on).
Former Gov. Pete Wilson has said the lawmaker's actions disqualify him from elected office, and national GOP strategist
Donnelly calls the criticism "an unprecedented assault" by a political class that is desperate to protect the status quo. But he slyly notes that the issues have kept his name in the headlines — no small matter, given his lack of campaign cash.
"You can say anything you want about me, but I go to people's doorsteps and I talk to them and I go everywhere," he said. "I get criticized all the time, but you know what, they keep spelling my name right."