Oceanside's Rocky Chávez And His Long-Shot Bid For The U.S. Senate
California Assemblyman Rocky Chávez is the first prominent Republican to announce he is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Barbara Boxer in 2016.
But his name recognition is low, leading some to ask: Who is Rocky Chávez? Isn’t his candidacy a long shot?
The competition is formidable. The other candidate in the race so far is California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a Democrat.
Speaking at a recent fundraiser in Carlsbad, Chávez said he’s not worried about his candidacy being a long shot. He’s always been an underdog and that hasn’t stopped him.
“People told me when I was in school getting ready to go to college ... that I could never make it,” Chávez said. “Well, I graduated from Chico State with an English degree. When they told me I couldn’t be a Marine officer because I was too short — you have to be 5 foot 6 inches and I was 5 foot 3 inches and a half — years later, I’m a colonel in the Marine Corps. When I started running for the Assembly District 76, I was told by others in the party that this was not my time, it was somebody else's. And I won by 17 points."
Chávez is now in his second term representing the 76th District in North San Diego County, which includes Oceanside and Carlsbad, parts of Vista and Encinitas and most of Camp Pendleton. He's eligible for another eight years under term limits, but he’s ready to move on.
Where will his support come from?
A fundraiser billed as a business roundtable in Carlsbad attracted 140 people — the day after Chávez declared he would run for Boxer's seat.
He was introduced by an ally, Catharine Baker, the first Republican to win an Assembly seat in the San Francisco Bay Area in eight years. Baker was there to return a favor.
“There were few who believed there could be a Republican elected in the Bay Area ever again," Baker told the crowd. “And it was Rocky who was probably the very first member of the state Assembly who said, 'I think there’s a candidate who can win this seat, we need to help her.’”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Baker's unexpected win was largely due to independent expenditures from political action committees funded by donors such as millionaire Charles Munger Jr. and companies such as Philip Morris. Chávez likely hopes he will get support from the same interest groups.
Chávez served as the acting secretary of veterans affairs under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Charles Hunnicutt, county veterans service officer for Fresno and Madera counties, said the time in that job and Chávez’s 28 years in the Marine Corps give him clout with veterans.
“Rocky made a big impact when he was acting secretary of veterans affairs,” Hunnicutt said. “Because he actually went to each county, he touched a lot of people. With Rocky, when he contacts us, he’s one of us. He’s a comrade. He understands what we’re going through, he understand what legislation needs to be passed.”
Chávez said his experience in the military informs his perspective on national security.
“The military should only be called in as a last resort, and many military people — because they know what it means — don’t want to jump on a plane and start shooting guns until we have a clear direction,” he said. “Military is not foreign policy. It’s the final element in foreign affairs.”
The Latino vote
Chávez hopes he’ll get the backing of Latino voters — a growing political demographic. But only an estimated 17 percent of Latino voters are registered Republicans. Arnulfo Manriquez, a Democrat, came to the North County roundtable see what Chávez had to say. He’s president of MAAC, a prominent community organization in San Diego that works with Latino families.
“This is an important seat for California — for the nation,” Manriquez said. “I am watching everything closely. I am looking for those that are going to be supporting immigration reform. I do want to look at immigration reform that has a pathway to citizenship over a period of time for people.”
Chávez said he has built coalitions at the state level to promote immigration reform.
“You talk about me leaving my political career for this,” he said, comparing his own decision to leave his Assembly seat for the U.S. Senate race. “There are people leaving everything in their country, walking here, just as people in the 1800s came over the mountains in covered wagons for a better opportunity. They’re willing to work for it. I’m willing to give them an opportunity.”
Chávez is a moderate on many social issues, though he said he opposes gun control legislation and is against abortion because of his Catholic upbringing. He said he would be in favor of maintaining the status quo on those issues.
He launched a science and technology charter school in Oceanside before becoming a City Council member there and sees education as key to reversing inequality.
“There’s critical issues in education,” he said. “We’re putting more money into education, but we haven’t really seen the results. And what really strikes me the most is that a third of the population is at the poverty level.”
The Republican Party
Chávez has not received the blessing of the Republican Party, which will not back any one candidate until after the 2016 primary election. But Tony Krvaric, chair of the San Diego County Republican Party, cites San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer as an example of a Republican who won in a city with a majority of Democratic voters.
“If you hit on the right messages on the statewide level, like Faulconer did on the local level, you will get cross-over votes,” Krvaric said. “And Rocky Chávez would be somebody who definitely could get cross-over votes.”
Krvaric said the wild card will be what happens in the presidential race. He thinks it might not be such a long shot for a Republican to win a U.S. Senate seat in California — where all statewide offices are currently held by Democrats.
“If you look at party registration, then yes,” he said. “But here we have a situation with the Democrats picking someone that’s handpicked from San Francisco. So if you’re not a San Francisco liberal, you ought to to take a look at another alternative.”
Chávez acknowledged there’s plenty of time for other Republican candidates to jump into the race.
“But I’m confiden looking across the field at anybody who’s thinking about it," he said. "I actually have won elections, I’ve actually run a state agency. I have a base of support, I’m from California, and we have a message that’s going to resonate throughout the state.“
Chávez said he plans to raise $3 million to $5 million to be viable in the primary. He’s already thinking about the tens of millions dollars more he’ll need if he actually wins that long shot.