By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - California state lawmaker Rocky Chavez on Thursday became the first Republican to jump into the race for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated next year by Democrat Barbara Boxer.
Chavez, a retired Marine colonel who represents part of San Diego County in the State Assembly, faces an uphill battle against Democratic state Attorney General Kamala Harris in the heavily blue state.
But Chavez predicted he would win support from Californians concerned about national security, the economy and the state's troubled public education system.
"If things get worse overseas, who would Californians want representing them in the Senate? A lawyer from San Francisco or a Marine colonel who knows how lives can be protected?" Chavez said, citing the threat from the Islamic State militant group.
Chavez has charted a mostly centrist course since winning election to the Legislature in 2012, backing immigration reform and same-sex marriage while saying that as a Catholic, he opposes abortion. He has also supported education reform, introducing a bill to loosen some job protections for teachers.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa flirted for weeks with a run after Boxer announced her retirement in January. The Democrat said last week he would not seek the job.
Harris' spokesman, Brian Brokaw, said on Thursday she "welcomes Assemblyman Chavez to the race and believes anyone should run for office if that's how he or she believes California can be best served."
A Field poll released last month showed 46 percent of likely voters were inclined to support Harris, compared with 20 percent for Chavez among a list of potential candidates. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they would support former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Republican, if she sought the seat.
Rice has not said if she would consider a run.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Peter Cooney)