It’s normal for an aspiring politician to have role models, but Timothy E. Donner’s choices — Ron Johnson, Rand Paul and Christine O’Donnell — aren’t the usual ones.
Johnson (Wis.), Paul (Ky.) and O’Donnell (Del.) were all underdogs who surprised the Republican establishment and won the party nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010. Donner, a film-production company owner with no past involvement in electoral politics, is hoping to do the same in Virginia in 2012.
Donner is one of several Republicans either running or contemplating a bid to succeed retiring Sen. James Webb (D). Former senator George Allen is the Republican front-runner, while former Virginia Tea Party Patriots head Jamie Radtke has also drawn some attention to her campaign. The nominee will probably face former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) in November.
And then there’s Donner, who has neither the name recognition and experience of Allen nor the tea party connections of Radtke. Those disadvantages don’t dissuade him to run in a contest expected to draw national attention because it’s one of a few races observers say could decide control of the Senate.
“There seems to be an appetite for people outside the traditional political realm, as we saw in 2010,” Donner said in an interview last week at a Great Falls coffee shop, citing the examples from the last election cycle. (Johnson and Paul won in the general election, while O’Donnell lost.)
Donner called himself “well-tailored for the current political environment.” Others call him something else: a long shot.
“He doesn’t stand a chance, on paper,” said Brent Bozell, the president of the conservative Media Research Center and a friend of Donner’s. “But if ever there was a year where someone who didn’t stand a chance could win, it’s this year.”
Donner’s first hurdle is a basic one: Few Virginians know who he is.
In a Washington Post poll released in early May, Donner took less than 1 percent among registered voters in a hypothetical seven-way Republican primary matchup. Allen led the way with 54 percent, while everyone else in the field was at 4 percent or lower.
Even Republican Party officials in Virginia say they don’t know much about Donner, because he’s not only never run for office, but he also has never contributed to any state or federal candidates.
Donner, 55, said he had mulled getting into politics “on and off for a number of years” but only recently made up his mind to take the plunge. “What we do as we get older is we look at our skill set . . . and we say, ‘What is the highest and best use of those skills?’ ” he said.
Donner runs Horizons Television, which produces educational videos and documentaries, including a recent series on the Bill of Rights and a “rebuttal” film to Al Gore’s climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Donner has also worked extensively as a baseball broadcaster and, until recently, was the host of the syndicated radio show “Talkin’ Baseball.” A resident of Great Falls for 20 years, Donner lives with his wife, Leesa, a former television reporter and anchor, and their two sons.
Although he has never worked in politics, Donner has deep ties to the conservative public policy world. He is on the board of the Virginia Institute for Public Policy and the founder of One Generation Away, a nonprofit policy organization.
Those connections could help Donner raise money, and he’ll need plenty of it to make his name known statewide.
“He’s just very well plugged into the conservative movement,” said John Taylor, the president of VIPP and a Donner friend. “He’s been in it most of his life. I think he’ll do very well on that end of things.”
What makes Donner something of a wild card in the Senate contest is the idea that he might be able to self-fund his campaign.
Donner is the great-grandson of William H. Donner, a wealthy steel tycoon, and is the secretary of the William H. Donner Foundation, a philanthropic organization with more than $100 million in assets. The candidate’s father, Joseph W. Donner, is a former stockbroker who helped found the conservative magazine National Review.
Timothy Donner wouldn’t give an estimate for his net worth. He also wouldn’t say how much he has spent on the campaign or would be willing to spend in the future, though the first hints will be available in Federal Election Commission reports due July 15.
Donner said the final amount “will be substantial enough to make a difference” but added that he would not shell out more than $1 million from his own pocket.
Johnson, the businessman who scored an upset Senate victory in Wisconsin last year, spent nearly $9 million of his own money on that contest.
But he didn’t face any candidates in the primary as formidable as Allen.
As for O’Donnell, she was the lone insurgent candidate in the Delaware Republican field against the establishment-backed Rep. Mike Castle. Donner is just one of several such hopefuls in Virginia. And Paul, in Kentucky, had name recognition and a national fundraising base because of his famous father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
“I don’t think the circumstances are quite the same as any of the examples he cited,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s a nice analogy, but it also highlights the dangers of fighting the last war.”
Donner is conservative on social and economic policy issues, but then so are his opponents, for the most part.
“It’s a difference in the messenger as much as the message because . . . let’s be honest, there’s not a great deal of daylight on the issues,” Donner said. “There will be a difference in terms of the emphasis.”
Like Radtke, Donner said that if he was in the Senate now, he would vote in favor of a controversial budget proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to change Medicare beginning in 2021 by providing vouchers for seniors to buy private health insurance.
Allen has declined to say whether he supports the plan.
John Lenczowski, the president of the Institute of World Politics who knows Donner from the nonprofit world, said he “doesn’t fit the normal profile of somebody” who runs for office.
“He’s not somebody who’s in it for ego gratification,” Lenczowski said. “There are some people who are interested in achieving power and status. He is more of a mission-oriented guy rather than a power aggrandizer.”
Donner’s profile is so different that his friends were surprised to hear he was running for Senate.
“I didn’t know he had that itch,” Bozell said. “I didn’t know that he was thinking about that. But all good people start somewhere, and when he asked me what I thought, I told him that no one’s entitled to the seat and if he wanted to take a stab at it, he should.”