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Chávez withdraws from U.S. Senate race, will seek re-election to Assembly

Video: Republican Rocky Chávez withdraws from U.S. Senate race; will seek reelection to Assembly

Chávez makes formal announcement during radio debate. He finishes the Senate race with $369 and $43,000 in debt. Video courtesy of 600 KOGO AM.
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Chávez makes formal announcement during radio debate. He finishes the Senate race with $369 and $43,000 in debt. Video courtesy of 600 KOGO AM.

Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chávez is ending his cash-strapped bid for the U.S. Senate and will instead campaign for re-election to the Legislature.

Chávez formally announced his intentions at the start of a Monday evening radio debate on KOGO-AM in San Diego, then walked off stage. In an interview earlier Monday with The Sacramento Bee, Chávez pointed to the difficulties he faced raising money over the last 11 months, saying he relied heavily on personal funds of late to keep the campaign running.

Chávez, a retired Marine Corps colonel from Oceanside, took in roughly $105,000 and closed the year with just $369 on hand and nearly $43,000 in debts.

“I looked at it and I figured the best thing I can do for the Republican Party and the best thing I could do for my role, because I still want to be active in politics, is to step back and run for the Assembly seat that I currently hold, and then see what develops in 2018,” Chávez said in the telephone interview.

He had been critical of the party’s decision to stay out of the Senate race and instead focus on down-ticket contests, and said his attention to issues such as poverty, education, immigration and foreign policy were resonating with voters at campaign stops.

“I think there’s generally a feeling in the Republican Party that in a presidential election in the state of California it’s best to hold on to the seats you have and not to expand,” he said. “I disagree with that analysis, obviously ... There’s a huge disenfranchised group of people. Look at the poverty rate ... This was the exact right time for a Republican to run and for (the party) to expand. But my argument didn’t sway anybody because we had the resource issue.”

Chávez’s abrupt withdrawal leaves two former state GOP chairmen, Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, with uphill bids for the seat of retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer. Under the state’s unique system, in place for the first time in a competitive U.S. Senate race, the two candidates with the most votes in the June primary – regardless of party – will advance to the November election.

Democrats Kamala Harris, the state attorney general, and Loretta Sanchez, a congresswoman from Orange, have the advantage given the state’s strong Democratic streak and have held the top two positions in every public poll to date. But Chávez’s exit could help one of the Republicans consolidate support to make it into the fall runoff.

Sundheim, an attorney and mediator from Palo Alto, has largely occupied the moderate, establishment wing of the GOP, while Del Beccaro, a lawyer and author from Lafayette, more closely aligns with its conservative base.

Chávez, who estimates he’s personally spent as much as $40,000 on the race, said he doesn’t believe his departure will have much of an effect on Sanchez, who he noted also focused on foreign affairs and similarly criticized Harris for her lack of experience.

Chávez aligns with Sundheim on many issues but said he didn’t expect to make any immediate decisions about an endorsement. “That’s up to them,” he said.

His decision to seek re-election scrambles a legislative race in one of the state’s few GOP strongholds. A former city councilman in Oceanside, he won the seat four years ago in a fall contest over Republican Sherry Hodges, benefiting from outside spending by megadonor and GOP official Charles Munger Jr.

Among the Republicans running, and raising large sums of money, for Chávez’s 76th district are Phil Graham, the stepson of former Gov. Pete Wilson, and Oceanside Councilman Jerry Kern. Chávez said he doesn’t know Graham but considers Kern a friend. He planned to let him know shortly before the debate.

“I think this is part of politics,” Chávez said. “I told him before we started this, ‘nothing is final until filing day in March.’ He’s a big boy, you know.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

Chávez makes formal announcement during radio debate. He finishes the Senate race with $369 and $43,000 in debt. Video courtesy of 600 KOGO AM.