Donnelly, a gun-rights advocate from San Bernardino County, announced his candidacy on Tuesday. The outspoken critic of illegal immigration and social conservative says he is unfazed by a state electorate that leans far to his political left. He says his campaign will offer voters an alternative to the high taxes and what he calls government interference offered by Brown and his fellow Democrats.
In addition to Donnelly, moderate Republican and former lawmaker Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado is also running. Their candidacies are unlikely to receive a warm welcome from the GOP establishment, which has sought to rebrand itself so it can appeal to a wider variety of voters, including Latinos, amid sinking registration numbers.
Many party delegates had hoped to shift the party to the political center and keep the focus off the divisive issues that have been central to Donnelly's previous campaigns, including his history as a former Minuteman border enforcer.
In his campaign advertisement, Donnelly zeros in on the state's popularity with business owners.
"We need to make California the sexiest place to do business, because right now, the only thing sexy to me in the state of California is my wife," Donnelly says in the ad.
Brown hasn't formally announced his plans for re-election, but he is expected to seek a fourth term.
The official filing period to run for governor does not begin until Feb. 10.
According to a September Public Policy Institute of California poll, Brown has a 49 percent approval rating among likely voters and has nearly $16 million in his two campaign committees.
On the other hand, Donnelly has less than $40,000 combined in his two campaign accounts. Maldonado has raised $313,000 so far this year but spent much of it on a high-priced campaign team that he has since fired.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.