Tim Donnelly is at the California Republican Party convention that opened today in San Diego, but he won’t be staying long. Tomorrow morning the arch-conservative candidate for Congress will be heading to the U.S.-Mexico border to “reinstate the Minutemen,” he said.

Tim Donnelly, Republican candidate in California’s 8th congressional district.

In the mid-2000’s,the “Minutemen Project” was a movement of armed vigilantes whose aim was to enforce federal immigration law. Donnelly founded the Minutemen Party in California, before becoming a Tea Party activist and serving in the state Assembly in 2011 and 2012.

Donnelly said he’d be reuniting the group somewhere along the border between San Diego and Calexico and hoped a few hundred armed compatriots would show up tomorrow.

Late last month, Donnelly issued a digital “call to arms” in response to Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to send some national guard troops to the border, at President Trump’s request, but on the condition that they not be used to enforce immigration law.

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“I basically told [Governor] Jerry Brown I dared him to come arrest me,” he said. “He wants to send our national guard down here to be delivery boys and paper pushers….They’re good enough to go to Iraq and Afghanistan and secure their borders, but not good enough to do real work here?”

Last year, Brown signed California’s “sanctuary state” bills into law, restricting the ability of local and state law-enforcement officers’ cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Donnelly characterizes the main law as a policy to “protect criminal illegal aliens,” though it does not apply to those convicted of some 800 crimes.

Donnelly’s visit to the California Republican confab comes at a challenging time for the party. According to a series of recent polls out of UC Berkeley, 56 percent of California voters support the main sanctuary law and only 31 percent approve of Trump. But among Republicans, the findings are essentially reversed: 88 percent oppose the sanctuary measure, and 80 percent approve of the president’s job performance.

Meanwhile, immigration has been one of the most galvanizing issues for the party’s base, with cities and counties across southern California passing ordinances and resolutions against the sanctuary law.

As the June primary election approaches, party leaders need to walk the line between satisfying the base and not repelling the majority of the state electorate. With the presence of outspoken nativist firebrands like Donnelly, for whom the state party is woefully soft on immigration, that’s particularly difficult.

Donnelly may be using the GOP gathering as a staging ground for his vigilante comeback, but he has no love for the party. That antipathy is especially directed at Republican congressman Paul Cook, whose seat Donnelly is trying to take. According to the website Fivethirtyeight, Cook votes with the president 98.6 percent of the time. But for Donnelly, who ran for the seat in 2016 and for governor in 2014, that’s 1.4 percentage points short of good enough.

Despite his GOP affiliation on the ballot, Donnelly said, the California Republican Party “sucks….They don’t stand for anything.”

That will come as news to the approximately 1,400 delegates in attendance this weekend. Many of them will be voting to offer the party endorsement to one of its two gubernatorial candidates, businessman John Cox and Assemblyman Travis Allen. Both candidates oppose the sanctuary policy, and Allen has made opposition to illegal immigration a hallmark of his campaign.

For Donnelly, neither candidate is strong enough. “It’s a missed opportunity,” he said.

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Ben Christopher

Ben covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written...