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Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, takes his seat in the Assembly during the first session of the new year at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012. Earlier in the day Donnelly was detained, cited and released after he tried to bring a gun in his carry-on bag through the security checkpoint at the Ontario International Airport on his way to Sacramento. Donnelly will face a court hearing at a later date. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

California's political class has settled on the conventional wisdom about conservative Assemblyman Tim Donnelly's campaign for the GOP nomination for governor.

It goes like this: Donnelly, a former member of the minutemen, is too conservative for California. He doesn't have a chance to seriously challenge Gov. Jerry Brown, and having him as the Republican standard-bearer would be very bad for a state party already in deep trouble.

Donnelly has heard such talk, but wonders just how savvy some of these Republican wiseguys really are.

"Are they the same ones who advised Meg Whitman?" he asks.

It will be a tall order for any Republican to seriously challenge Brown next year, assuming he gets around to announcing his intent to seek re-election. Brown has unparalleled name-recognition, a boatload of campaign funds, and will be able to credibly claim that he guided California out of its financial abyss.

As a result, many Republicans are now saying their party needs someone who, even in losing, would begin the process of restoring the GOP's image. Perhaps former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, the son of a Mexican immigrant. Or maybe Indian-American Neel Kashkari, who worked for President George W. Bush. Or possibly former Rep. Chris Cox, an elder statesman.

Donnelly believes some who are floating those suggestions are bent on steering the state GOP even further off course. What the party cannot do, he says, is to sail off in search of converts while leaving behind the folks who built their ship.

"The Republican Party has abandoned the people who brought them to the party," he said.

Donnelly is a candidate capable of exciting such folks.

He takes a tough line on illegal immigration, assailing Brown for just having signed "nine bills to give more benefits to people in the country illegally." After Brown agreed to let such individuals obtain driver's licenses, it was Donnelly who went on Fox News to sound the alarm.

Donnelly speaks the language of Fox News. He's pro-gun, anti-tax and says California needs "to take a page out of Rick Perry's book."

Republican consultant Matt Rexroad says Donnelly is the kind of flame-thrower that voters in much of the state have moved beyond. These days, Rexroad told me, most voters are again looking for competence, something he believes Donnelly has yet to demonstrate.

And, he notes, "there was that unfortunate experience at Ontario Airport" in which Donnelly was going through airport security and forgot that he had a firearm in his travel bag. He pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors, paid a fine and was put on probation.

In a real campaign, that would be the first thing most voters would learn about Donnelly.

But when a party's voter registration numbers drop to 29 percent, it means that those who remain are true believers. Donnelly can count on conservative social media and talk radio to spread the word to followers that he's one of them.

In fact, it's already happened. At the state GOP convention earlier this month, Donnelly was a hit. It was the moment, he says, when conservatives started taking his candidacy seriously.

"Something changed," he told me. "I went to the hallway to get a cup of coffee and got mobbed."

Donnelly is working the state at the time when there is still a void of other candidates. When the Camarillo Republican Women Federated was looking for a pinch-hit speaker this week, for example, program director Scotia Alves says she called 10 Republican officials, but only Donnelly answered the call.

He believes he can become competitive by uniting Republicans, tea party supporters, libertarians and disaffected Democrats. "My goal is to unite a divided majority," he told me.

The Republican campaign gurus in California might consider taking a look at Donnelly and thinking strategically.

At this point, it appears the 2014 elections will be extraordinarily lackluster. There will be no U.S. Senate race, a potentially lopsided governor's race with little TV spending, and no ballot measures on the horizon with the potential to get voters' juices flowing.

Voter turnout could be abysmal, which would give GOP candidates in competitive legislative and congressional districts a boost. As a general rule, the lower the voter turnout, the better Republicans fare.

That rule only works, however, if those voters who make up the conservative base don't decide to snooze through Election Day. Donnelly is someone with the potential to keep them awake.

He might be the kind of candidate who could lose at the top of the ticket but help Republicans on the bottom.