"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.
On the stump, when he brings up immigration, it's to promise a better business climate — one that he says will lead to U-Hauls on the freeways as people flock to California from Texas and other states for well-paying jobs, fostered by a reduced government and lowered taxes.
He mixes alarmist cries about the state's future with self-deprecating jokes about his thinning hair and paunch. And he eschews the traditional partisan potshot, pitching himself as a happy warrior who can respect supporters of the other major political party.
"Democrats are not the enemy, tyranny is the enemy," Donnelly told supporters nibbling on pigs-in-a-blanket at a strip-mall fundraiser in Roseville. "Democrats are our neighbors, they're our friends, they're people we work with, people we go to church with."
"You know, I think we can unite the divided majority that is California, on American values — hard work, personal responsibility, freedom," he concluded.
It's an appeal born of necessity. With GOP registration historically low at 29%, toppling a popular Democrat would require substantial votes from elsewhere on the spectrum — from disaffected Democrats and independents who Donnelly says will agree with him.
But many of his views are at odds with those of most Californians.
He opposes a path to citizenship and driver's licenses for immigrants who are in the country illegally. He calls for more oil drilling and supports the controversial practice of fracking.
He is for school vouchers and opposes the high-speed rail network that Brown champions. He calls Brown and other Democratic officials Socialists.
He veers toward conspiracy theories — for example, promoting a belief that California's leaders want to impose a United Nations sustainable-development pact to strip Americans of their property. He expresses skepticism that humans cause climate change.
"Al Gore did not invent the Internet," Donnelly said to laughs in Marina. "He invented global warming, and he got rich off it."
Though Donnelly says the gubernatorial race will not be decided by money, the need for it is clearly never far from his mind.
"It will take money to win," he told supporters in Roseville, who paid $99 per person or $150 per couple to attend. "Without a victory, we can't affect policy."
He asks for whatever people can give, and hand-writes thank you notes to those who contribute more than $100.
"Every one of you can do something," Donnelly told a GOP meeting in Scotts Valley, near Santa Cruz. "If all you can give me is $3 in quarters, I want your name and email."
On Wednesday, he sought funds to fly actress Maria Conchita Alonso and other supporters by private plane to a planned Fresno rally. The "pitchfork protest," focused on farmers and California's drought, could prove pivotal to his campaign, Donnelly said.
"This is going to be one of those things that will gain us a tremendous amount of support and votes, actual votes all through the Central Valley and the entire agricultural community across the state," he told a supporter on the phone.
After securing $5,000 for fuel from the supporter, whom the campaign declined to identify, Donnelly told a staffer to order the plane. Then he gazed at the greenery on the curving roads between Carmel and Salinas.
"I can't even think of how many T-shirts that would buy," he muttered.