"I want my state back. I want my freedom back," Donnelly told hundreds of delegates and supporters at a California Republican Assembly convention in Buena Park. "You are going to be the key, because … you are the foot soldiers of freedom."
Shortly afterward, the group unanimously endorsed him.
The nod, not unexpected, could be a boost for Donnelly, a second-term assemblyman from San Bernardino County and a Tea Party favorite. Although in an increasingly Democratic state the group's membership and clout are a shadow of what they were in the 1960s, when Reagan was elected governor. The group is among the largest state Republican factions and its members are loyal.
Any Republican will face a steep climb against incumbent Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown because of the state's blue tilt and his wide financial advantage. Donnelly is mostly battling former U.S. Treasury official Neel Kashkari to run against Brown in the fall.
Voters' choice in the June primary could have broader implications for the direction of the state's Republican Party, whose numbers in California are at a historic low, less than 29%. Some argue that the top of the ticket will determine down-ballot races, including critical congressional and legislative contests; others say the race will offer a glimpse of how much the party wants to differentiate itself from the state's Democrats.
Donnelly is an old-school conservative, a fierce advocate of gun rights and a staunch opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, while Kashkari comes from the moderate wing of the party.
The California Republican Assembly's endorsement could push the most conservative voters to the polls, benefiting Donnelly. But Donnelly would need money to get the word out to those voters, said Jon Fleischman, former president of the group and publisher of the conservative FlashReport.org blog.
"The endorsement is significant if Donnelly can raise the resources," Fleischman said, while conceding the group's sway has diminished. "Back in its heyday … that could move the needle. Things ebb and flow, and CRA is not the substantial organization that it used to be."
Founded in the 1930s, the group is the most conservative voice in state Republican politics. With thousands of members, it has never shied from criticizing Republicans deemed to have strayed from party orthodoxy. Its members once burned then-Gov. Pete Wilson in effigy.
The group has seen a resurgence in recent months, growing its membership and attracting high-profile speakers, notably Pastor Rafael Cruz, father of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, to its convention this weekend at a hotel near Knott's Berry Farm.
Donnelly, who spent $2,500 to be the convention's title sponsor, affording him advertising signs and other visible privileges at the event, spoke to attendees over a dinner of fried chicken and boysenberry pie on Saturday before a private reception for delegates.
But Donnelly has not been able to raise significant amounts of money; Kashkari raised about $1 million in the first two weeks of his campaign. In recent days, he has received large donations from former Univision Chairman Jerry Perenchio, News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch and the widow of cowboy movie actor Gene Autry.
Kashkari did not appear before the group, which a CRA official deemed "a mutual decision" between the organization and his campaign. But he has not drawn the vitriol from its members, or from their sympathizers on talk radio, that has dogged other moderate Republicans, notably former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and unsuccessful 2010 gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman.
Some conservatives, dismayed as they are by Kashkari's liberal social stances, say that he has built some good will because he has sought the view of conservative groups and leaders.
"At least he's trying … which I greatly appreciate," said Aaron Park, sergeant at arms of the CRA.
Kashkari said he has been encouraged by conservatives' reaction to him and said it was driven by his laser-like focus on jobs and education, and his sincerity.
"I think I connect with people in an authentic, genuine way because I'm not selling anybody anything. I'm just telling them what I really believe," he said in a recent interview.
That said, Kashkari, a first-time candidate, remains unknown to most voters. Many convention delegates, including 71-year-old retiree Kathy Corrigan of Mission Viejo, had never heard of him.
She plans to vote for Donnelly, whom she described as "fantastic." "He will make the best governor we've had in years," she said. "He's just everything we believe in. He's a great conservative."
After Donnelly spoke, CRA President John Briscoe said that, out of fairness, he needed to offer Kashkari the opportunity to make his case at the podium, which bore a sign that said, "2014: Expect the impossible."
"Neel, Neel, are you here?" Briscoe said to laughter.