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Capitol Journal

Rocky Chavez's Senate bid may be suicide mission

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez has a lot going for him -- except the money and votes to win the 2016 Senate race

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez would be a fine Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. That's because:

• He's not a crazy, not a demagogic ideologue.

• He actually has run for office before and won, unlike other Republican wannabes.

• He's precisely what the GOP needs: a friendly face for Latinos, who increasingly have been shunning the party.

But would giving up a safe Assembly seat for a practically unwinnable Senate chase be a fine move for Chavez? Very probably not. More on that later.

Chavez, 63, from Oceanside, on Tuesday became the second candidate to leap into the 2016 race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer.

Well, he didn't exactly leap. He stepped in gingerly, forming an "exploratory committee." That allows him to raise campaign money but quietly back away in a few weeks if his candidacy is going nowhere.

He told me, however, "I'm very serious. I don't do things halfheartedly…. I'll make a decision in two or three weeks. I'm not going to sit around contemplating forever."

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris is the only candidate running full-bore so far. She's a Democrat, the winning party in California. Also, if she should lose, she'd keep her current job because the term lasts until 2018. That, in political speak, is called a "free ride."

Chavez's Assembly term will expire in 2016, as will those of all the Democratic U.S. House members who are mulling a Senate race.

So there was no need for Harris to take an interim exploratory step. She wisely just took off on a marathon, soliciting money and piling up endorsements.

Everyone who's paying attention keeps waiting for Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa, the former Los Angeles mayor and Assembly speaker, to announce his candidacy. He has been considering it for six weeks.

Villaraigosa insiders have been saying that he's on the verge, that he's just lining up his ducks. But maybe he's not finding enough ducks.

The former mayor couldn't have been very encouraged by a survey of likely voters by the nonpartisan Field Poll released Wednesday. The poll listed 18 conceivable Senate candidates — some possible, others far-fetched — and asked whether people would be inclined to vote for them.

More answered they were disinclined to vote for Villaraigosa (47%) than were inclined (35%). Leading the pack was the GOP dream candidate, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who repeatedly has said she has no interest in running. Harris was second (46% inclined, 37% disinclined).

Chavez? Near the bottom (20% inclined, 47% disinclined.)

Some good polling news, however, for Villaraigosa: He's the favorite among Latinos — 60% inclined to vote for him.

But if Chavez is listed on the open primary ballot with Villaraigosa, won't the assemblyman draw Latino votes from the former mayor, perhaps hurting his chances of finishing in the top two and advancing to the general election? Particularly if other Southern Californians and Latinos also are running?

No, insists veteran Democratic consultant Garry South, a Villaraigosa sounding board. "History has shown pretty clearly that Latinos do not cross over to vote for Republicans in California."

An estimated 55% of Latino voters are Democrats and only 17% are Republicans. The rest are so-called independents who strongly lean Democratic. Latinos account for about 20% of votes cast.

"Let's put this in perspective," South says. "Rocky who?

"It doesn't matter if he runs or doesn't run. If Antonio gets in, this will be a race between Villaraigosa and Kamala Harris. Nothing else matters. It will be them and a couple of also-rans."

South adds: "It would be better if his name were Rocky Balboa."

Chavez has an American dream story, as do many emerging Latino politicians:

Grew up in Torrance, washed dishes after school and at El Camino College. Picked crops going to Chico State. Enlisted in the Marines, became an artillery officer — one specialty was nuclear weapons — and rose to colonel. Later ran a charter school, served on the Oceanside City Council, was undersecretary of the state Veteran Affairs Department and was elected to the Assembly in 2012.

Because of his military experience, Chavez says, "I'm someone who understands what's going on in the world. The United States hasn't formed a foreign policy since the Cold War ended. It's important to develop as many relationships with other countries as we can. That allows us to have a strong military and a strong economy."

He's big on public education and thinks Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown did "a smart thing" in giving local schools more control over state money.

He's a social moderate — favors same-sex marriage — but calls himself a fiscal conservative. He also thinks of himself as a Teddy Roosevelt environmentalist.

"I've got a good message and I'm right on the issues," he says.

But to broadcast that message, he'd need $20 million. Forget it. National Republicans no longer invest in California, and the state party is practically broke, focusing on legislative races.

Chavez says he enjoys the Legislature. "There are some really neat policy issues, like green technology. I'm excited about Common Core in education. California is a great state, and it's a great time to be involved. It's fun."

He has one of those new 12-year term limits. He can settle in and do some good, particularly for the Republican Party. Or he can become a Republican sacrificial lamb fighting for a Senate seat.

If the GOP won't kick in hefty money, it doesn't deserve his candidacy.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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