LOS ANGELES (AP) — A two-term Republican legislator who has sought to broaden the appeal of the party with Hispanics launched an uphill campaign Thursday to become the next U.S. senator from California, a state that hasn’t sent a GOP senator to Washington since the 1980s.
Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a retired Marine Corps colonel from San Diego County, became the first established Republican to enter the 2016 contest to replace outgoing Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat.
Chavez is not well-known statewide, but his candidacy nonetheless changes the dynamics of a contest that had so far attracted only a single, major candidate — state Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat.
Asked whether he could win in a state where Democrats hold every statewide office and a 2.7 million edge in voter registration, Chavez said, “I know I can.”
In a statement released by his campaign, Chavez contrasted his background in the military with the credentials of Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney.
“If things get worse overseas, who would Californians want representing them in the Senate — a lawyer from San Francisco or a Marine colonel who knows how lives can be protected and understands the importance of keeping America and her allies safe and secure?” he asked.
Chavez’s election to the Legislature in 2012 was seen as a success story for the Republican Party, which is often faulted for being too slow to adapt in a diversifying state. A Hispanic and grandfather, Chavez has been calling for immigration reform and has said the national health care overhaul should not be repealed by Congress.
Chavez could help the party make inroads with Latinos, who now make up about 20 percent of voters in the state. National Republicans have made efforts to broaden the party’s reach with minorities, a vulnerability seen when President Barack Obama ran up large margins with black, Hispanic and Asian voters in his 2012 re-election.
His candidacy also sets up a north-south rivalry with Harris, who has roots in the San Francisco Bay Area.
“You now have somebody running on the Republican side who is a proven vote-getter, who has held office,” noted Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “You also have somebody with a Hispanic surname, and someone from Southern California.”
Two former state Republican Party chairmen, Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, are also considering entering the race.
GOP leaders concede that a Republican has only an outside chance of winning the Senate contest. It’s been a generation since a Republican carried California in a presidential election: George H.W. Bush, in 1988.
“I feel very sad that we’re in this position right now,” Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the California Republican Party, told reporters last week in Sacramento.
Chavez has spoken frequently about the need to retool the party’s message and make it more about family, education and safe communities while ending harsh words about people who entered the U.S. illegally.
Chavez spent 28 years in the military, later founding a charter high school for business and technology, where he served as director. He was a member of the Oceanside City Council before being appointed in 2009 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as undersecretary for the state Department of Veterans Affairs. He later served as acting secretary.
In the Legislature, Chavez has denounced the soaring cost of higher education and talked of the need to make health care affordable and available for all residents. He also focused on veterans issues, including providing tuition assistance.
Chavez said he sees himself as a mainstream Californian — he has three children and five grandchildren, lives in a tract home and drives a 2002 pickup. He describes himself as a fighter, willing to take on long odds.
Part of that job will be charming members of his own party because Chavez’s moderate politics could chaff conservatives in the GOP’s right wing, particularly on immigration. And he will face challenges raising money because donors are likely to be hesitant to finance a first-time statewide candidate facing substantial odds.
“He has no chance of winning,” said Steve Frank, a longtime conservative activist and blogger from Southern California who is supporting Del Beccaro.