Rocky Chavez stays optimistic as he vows to do the impossible in California senate race

Rocky Chavez excels at optimism, a quality that is pushing him forward in what political analysts in California call an upward battle: to gain Barbara Boxer’s soon-to-be-vacant United States Senate seat.

Chavez, a Republican, is trying to do what even fellow partisans consider impossible in a Senate race that has been dominated by Democrats for decades.

He aims to prove that California political commentators are wrong when they say that his personal charm, Latino origins and pragmatic politics will not be enough to win in a very blue state.

“I know I have a chance,” says Chavez, 64, a California state legislator from Oceanside. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t.”

Boxer and Diane Feinstein, both Democrats, have served as U.S. Senators since the early 1990s. The last Republican from California to hold a seat in the U.S. Senate was John F. Seymour, who lost to Feinstein in 1992.

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“This Senate race, if it’s going to be run as a Democratic-Republican race, they are right, I don’t have a chance because the numbers aren’t there,” says Chavez with a glowing face, his eyes revealing his giddy excitement.

“But were not going to do that,” he adds.

What he says he plans to do is campaign about issues that are dear to Californians, red or blue, and most of all to Latinos.

“There are serious issues, like inequality, and we’re going to talk about the solutions,” says Chavez, a moderate Republican who supports same-sex marriage, comprehensive immigration reform and agrees with measures to support the environment.

But experts say Chavez’s efforts are a pipe dream.

“I commend him, but it’s a very long shot,” says Mike Madrid, a Latino Republican consultant and advisor in Sacramento.

“It is a great and noble cause and effort, but the history of Republican candidates getting Hispanic support is virtually nonexistent,” adds Madrid, who specializes in Latino voters.

He dismissed the possibility of a Republican candidate in California winning over the majority of the Latino voters.

“It’s not a problem with Rocky, but a problem with the Republican brand. Latinos don’t crossover in California,” says Madrid.

But it’s not just Republicans having trouble attracting California’s Latino vote. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, a Democrat from Orange Country, is trailing the frontrunner, State Attorney Kamala Harris. Sanchez, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, has been banking on Latino support to win the race – but has failed to attract enough Hispanic attention to put her in the lead.

Latinos were 39 percent of the state's population last year, surpassing non-Latino whites, who make up 38 percent of the state’s population, according to Census figures.

Recent polls show Chavez trailing Sanchez by at least 8 points and Harris by 17, but Chavez believes he will be the Latino who will face the state attorney in the general election on November 2016.

Under California’s “jungle” primary system, all candidates will appear on one ballot for the June 7, 2016, primary, and the two with the most overall votes move ahead to the general election in Nov. 8, regardless of party.

Chavez remains optimist about his chances.

Chavez, who is just under 5-foot-4, has a large personality – he’s friendly and enjoys engaging in a lively conversation. 

“The Senate race is a fun picture,” he says. “All up and down California you have all these pockets: mines, tourism, technology, agriculture. When you run for senate, you meet all these people. That’s fun, as is the ability to influence it and to make it better.”

Chavez grew up in Redondo Beach and Torrance, in Los Angeles County, and says he has been involved in politics since he was a teenager, as class president and member of the varsity wrestling team during his high school years.

Because he wanted to raise money to buy a motorcycle and hang out with his girlfriend, Chavez worked at many odd jobs: picking grapes and gathering almonds during the summer in Fresno and washing dishes at local restaurants.

His people skills won the attention of the restaurant owner who offered him a job as kitchen coordinator.

“All the white boys would work up front, and us Latinos, we washed dishes, but because of my personality I had the busboys working for me, and I had the kitchen guys working for me,” he recalls with a big smile on his face.

While attending college at Cal State Chico, he was hired as an assistant to the mortician at a funeral home.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” he adds.

Back home, after serving for 28 years in the U.S. Marines, Chavez ran twice for mayor of Oceanside and lost both times. He finally won a seat on the Oceanside's City Council in 2002.

In 2009, he was appointed as the Undersecretary of the California Department of Veteran Affairs by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2012, he was elected to the State Assembly to represent the 76th District.

When he talks about the road to the primaries and beyond, Chavez seems to be moving the principal players around, like in a chess game.

“I’m counting on Loretta Sanchez being very strong coming into the primary, but that will work against her, because they [Harris and Sanchez] are not going to be worried about me, they are going to be worried about each other,” he calculates.

“But Loretta won’t win the primaries,” he adds. “It’s all scripted. The Democratic Party has the state already wrapped up. Loretta is going to be fighting within her own party.”

That’s why he believes it will be Harris vs. Chavez in the general election.

“If I come out of the primary with 30 percent, that’s going to push me into the general and when we get going on this, when it’s Kamala Harris vs. Rocky Chavez, it will be the San Francisco vs. L.A. Latinos,” says Chavez.

For those who doubt him, he has a message for them.

“Nothing is sure in life,” he said, “and politics changes on a dime.”

Marcia Facundo is a freelance journalist who currently reports from Los Angeles, California. She has worked for El Nuevo Herald and as Hispanic Affairs Correspondent for the BBC World Service.

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