LOS ANGELES (AP) – A two-term Republican assemblyman 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 elected a GOP senator 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 has 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."
He said his nearly three decades in the military uniquely qualifies him to serve in Washington at a time when national security and overseas conflicts are dominant issues.
"We are at a critical time," Chavez said. "It's important that we have leaders who understand foreign affairs."
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Chavez has been calling for immigration reform and has said the national health care overhaul should not be repealed by Congress.
"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."
Harris has roots in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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 a scant 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.
State and national Republicans have made efforts to broaden the party's reach with minorities, a vulnerability emphasized after President Barack Obama ran up large margins with black, Hispanic and Asian voters in his 2012 re-election.
Chavez has spoken frequently about the need to retool the party's message and make it more about family, education and safe communities while including fewer 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.
He described 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.
"He has no chance of winning," said Steve Frank, a longtime conservative activist and blogger from Southern California, who described Chavez as "Democrat-light."
"He's going to be the 2016 version of Neel Kashkari," Frank said, referring to the party's failed 2014 candidate for governor.