June 21, 2010 6:22 PM
Natasha Lindstrom

Tim Donnelly’s narrow victory in claiming the Republican nomination in the 59th Assembly District surprised nearly everyone — including Donnelly and his backers.

The Twin Peaks small businessman admits that just three months ago, he knew next to nothing about running a campaign.

It took several unusual circumstances for the unlikely candidate to edge out his rivals, both Donnelly’s campaign workers and political analysts pointed out.

The most crucial factor was revealed by early election results, which showed a three-way contest — pitting Donnelly and former Covina Councilman Chris Lancaster in a dogfight, with Claremont Mayor Corey Calaycay trailing a bit behind at a little over 20 percent of the vote.

The three other Republican candidates didn’t get more than 10 percent.

“The three-way split set the table for surprise,” said Douglas Johnson, a fellow with Claremont McKenna College’s Rose Institute of State and Local Government.

If either Lancaster or Calaycay hadn’t run, Johnson said, “then Donnelly wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“Calaycay took a lot of wind out of the sails of Lancaster in Los Angeles,” agreed Gregg Imus, Donnelly’s friend and campaign manager. The 59th District includes portions of both Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, including Apple Valley and Hesperia.

The dynamic allowed for a candidate to win without a large amount of votes, or a large pot of money.

Donnelly spent roughly $23,500 on his campaign, compared to Lancaster’s $167,000 in campaign funds and Calaycay’s $93,000.

But that doesn’t mean Donnelly’s road was easy.

The seasoned campaign coordinators and pollsters that Donnelly reached out to early on generally turned him away.

“We’ve been told that there was no room on this Republican political machine for people like us,” Imus said.

The campaign was driven by the work of five of Donnelly’s friends and fellow small businessmen and a couple dozen volunteers with little political experience, said Imus, a general contractor.

They also benefited from what proved to be critical support from the Pasadena Patriots “tea party” group, who Imus said promoted Donnelly on their mailing list of some 25,000 residents.

Across California, the “tea party” movement has actually had little influence on elections thus far, Johnson said, but San Bernardino County — and the High Desert in particular — looks to have a growing wave of tea partiers.

“The High Desert region was a tea-party region before the term existed,” Johnson said. “It’s always been kind of a fired-up, grassroots region, and now they have the national support of the movement.”

A few key endorsements may also have made the difference.

The usual leading conservative supporter California Republican Assembly surprisingly endorsed Lancaster — though they had previously denounced him and instead endorsed Assemblyman Anthony Adams. This flip-flop likely lost the CRA credibility and turned more votes over to Donnelly, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Donnelly gained a last-minute endorsement from KFI radio’s “John & Ken Show.”

“I think this is more of just an outsider year,” Johnson added. “Certainly the Republican Party in this area has had its share of controversy.”

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