Politics & Government

Facing long odds, Rocky Chávez marches toward Senate run

Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, right, talks with leaders of the gay GOP organization Log Cabin Republicans of California, Charles Moran, center, and John Musella, on Friday at the California Republican Party convention in Sacramento.
Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, right, talks with leaders of the gay GOP organization Log Cabin Republicans of California, Charles Moran, center, and John Musella, on Friday at the California Republican Party convention in Sacramento. ccadelago@sacbee.com

Republican Rocky Chávez, a soon-to-be U.S. Senate candidate, refused to accommodate conventional wisdom as he shuffled between meetings with some of his party’s most devoted members over the weekend.

He stopped off to speak with reporters and touted an upcoming address to a gay Republican organization. “People have the right to love who they want to love,” said Chávez, a state assemblyman from the military town of Oceanside and a retired Marine Corps colonel.

On the federal health care overhaul, Chávez said Democrats deserve credit for taking on the lack of access to medicine. He said he wouldn’t join with Republicans in voting for its repeal.

But perhaps Chávez’s most daring belief is that he could overcome years of declining fortunes for his party and win a statewide race. During his reception at the state GOP’s biannual convention in Sacramento, Chávez said he plans to announce his campaign Thursday.

“My entire life has shown that when you go into something with the attitude you can never win, you pretty much assure you lose,” he said. “My whole life has been taking on challenges. My name is Rocky. I am not a movie star. I am a fighter, and I will go all the way.”

Having just endured a governor’s race where their candidate struggled to gain any traction against Democrat Jerry Brown as he cruised to a fourth term, Chávez and most other Republicans weighing bids would begin the contest to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer as poor bets.

“I don’t think there is anyone who thinks a Republican can win that race,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state GOP executive.

They trail Democrats by 15 percentage points in registered voters. Chávez and a pair of former state party chairmen looking at running, Tom Del Beccaro and Duf Sundheim, have yet to demonstrate they could raise the millions of dollars needed to compete.

“They would all be considered, frankly, to be long-shot candidates by me,” said Harmeet Dhillon, vice chair of the state GOP.

Dhillon said given the GOP’s structural challenges, its most formidable officeholders have little reason to relinquish their seniority in Congress to challenge for the Senate. That leaves a wide opening for Attorney General Kamala Harris, a San Francisco Democrat, as an early favorite to win the Senate seat and possibly retain it for years, Dhillon said.

“I am a party leader, and I have been active in Republican politics since I was a teenager, and I feel very sad that we’re in this position right now,” she added.

Aaron McLear, the GOP consultant who advised Neel Kashkari in his challenge of Brown, said the party is not in a financial position to help statewide candidates.

“Understanding that Neel was not going to win the general election, one thing he was trying to show future Republican candidates is that they could appeal to the broader electorate but without alienating the base,” McLear said.

The possible dearth of competition for the open seat is stoking fears about the direction of the state under Democratic command. The lack of a “credible opposition party in the state,” McLear said, “has led to one-party rule,” effectively silencing debate in campaigns.

“It’s not that (Harris) is either right or wrong in her views, it’s that there is not an opposing point of view for people to consider,” he said.

Chávez, an early and loyal supporter of Kashkari, thinks he can break through, saying “the difference is Kashkari ran against a legend. I mean, how long has the Brown family been an influence in California?”

Republican Carl DeMaio, a former city councilman from San Diego who narrowly lost a congressional race in November, said Chávez would offer a fresh perspective for the party.

“I think voters would take a second look at him,” DeMaio said. “He qualifies as someone they would be curious about.”

Chávez said he would not be funding his own campaign. His regular ride, he said a few times, is a 2002 pickup, and he lives in a tract home. But he said his politics, biography and appeal with Latinos across the political spectrum would help him raise money.

He met recently with party officials in Washington, who instructed him to begin putting together a plan and assembling a team.

Like Kashkari, Chávez paints himself as a social moderate, though he opposes abortion rights. (“I am Catholic,” he said.) Chávez also said he would deploy a similar policy strategy that mostly focuses on increasing jobs and improving schools.

He was one of the first Republican legislators to get behind a unified state call for federal immigration reform.

He scolded congressional Republicans for their brinkmanship over President Barack Obama’s latest immigration action. While he disagrees with the president’s approach, Chávez said, “I would be one of the guys pushing the (Republicans) to say we’ve got to do this.”

“We are a party of families, so how can you support a program that divides families, sends a mother and father away from the kids? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

He believes former Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recent decision not to challenge for the seat improves his prospects. Several Latino Democratic lawmakers approached him and privately conveyed he’s “the best thing for the Republican Party,” Chávez said. “I heard they were looking for a Latino candidate from L.A.,” he said, referring to those who sought to draft Villaraigosa.

He admits his Spanish is rusty, but he offers a solution: “Going down to Mexico and hanging out for a few weeks.”

Chávez grew up in Los Angeles. He tells the story of washing dishes and wrestling in high school, and of later working as an almond knocker while attending Chico State. Keep in mind, he often tells people, Rocky is his given name, not a nickname.

He served for 28 years in the Marines and spent seven years on the Oceanside City Council. In previewing an emerging debate, he used the violence breaking out around the world to question Harris’ command of foreign affairs.

“If it gets worse, who do you want to send to the Senate?” he asked. “A liberal lawyer from San Francisco or a Marine colonel?”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.

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