On June 7, Coachella Valley voters will go to the polls to cast their votes in the California primary—and the Republican Party is going all-out to reclaim the 36th Congressional District seat, currently held by Dr. Raul Ruiz, a Democrat.
So far, two Republicans have declared their intentions to take on Ruiz (who did not return repeated requests for comment for this story).
“When I entered the field, there was no Republican who had thrown their hat into this race and stayed in the race,” novice candidate Dwight Kealy told Independent. “We’re looking at a district where a strong Republican should have a good showing. Historically, it’s been a Republican district.”
That historical advantage was altered dramatically in 2012, when Ruiz, then a novice candidate himself, upset heavily favored Republican incumbent Mary Bono Mack in a tight race. In 2014, Ruiz won re-election, handily beating Brian Nestande.
“Right now, there’s a pretty likable Democrat in office, quite frankly,” Kealy admitted. “He’s from the district, and he obviously appeals to the Latino vote as well.
“(The Republicans) needed someone with a good story, so I was encouraged to explore this opportunity. I talked to a bunch of people throughout the district and introduced myself, and they were excited about it. I talked to the state leadership and at the national level to the Republican Party. They all seemed really excited.”
But not long after Kealy had committed, 24-year political veteran Jeff Stone, currently serving in the state Senate, made public his intention to challenge Dr. Ruiz as well. (Shortly after this story was published, Kealy announced he was dropping out of the race.)
“When the paperwork becomes available, we’ll expeditiously acquire the general-nomination papers and get them filled out,” Stone said. “We’ll get 40 registered voters in the district to sign those, which should not require much of an effort, and we’ll get them filed, and we will be officially in the race.”
Stone said he has been working hard to gather endorsements and raise funds for his likely battle against Ruiz, who already has $1.5 million in the bank for his campaign.
Is Stone concerned how voters will react to his decision to run for national office less than halfway into his four-year term as a state senator?
“I have to balance my responsibilities as a state senator, which are going to come first,” he said. “I’ll use what spare time I have to get into the district and talk to constituents—and, of course, you’ve got to be able to raise money to get your message out. So we have roughly 10 fundraisers that are planned between now and June at various areas of the district, in the state of California, and some that will actually be outside of California.”
Stone said his decision to jump into the congressional race resulted from a string of unexpected occurrences, beginning last March, when he made a trip to Washington, D.C.
“I went there to hear Benjamin Netanyahu and to show that there were a number of us in the country who did not believe the Iran deal was a good deal,” said Stone, “and also to lobby members of Congress to not support that deal the president was proposing with Iran. I walked the halls of Congress and met with our state delegation, including Dr. Raul Ruiz. While we were sitting with Dr. Ruiz, he made it very clear he was going to stand with Israel. I walked away from that meeting, just as many people did, thinking he was not going to support this horrific deal.”
But according to Stone, Ruiz broke his word when he ultimately voted to support the deal.
“He got a message from (House Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi that he had to support the president of the United States, and he was pretty much told what to do, and he flip-flopped on the vote. I was so disappointed, because that rarely has happened in the 24 years I’ve been an elected official, that somebody would make such a major policy shift on such an important issue, namely national security.”
Stone wrote a “Valley Voice” piece for The Desert Sun, voicing his opposition to the nuclear deal, last September.
“After that, I was getting phone calls and emails from people saying, ‘Senator Stone, where do we sign up? And where do send funds?’ And I said, ‘Well, what are you talking about?’ And they said, ‘Aren’t you running for Congress?’ I said, ‘I’m not running for Congress.’”
In November, Stone said, he returned to Washington, D.C., to lobby for federal assistance for his California district, and encountered two longtime Republican congressmen from California, Darrell Issa and Ken Calvert.
“‘You know Jeff, we really need you to get into this race,’” Stone recalled them telling him. “‘This is a race that’s about 50-50 Democrat-Republican. And frankly, Dr. Ruiz has been in Congress now long enough that he has a record that can be scrutinized. … So we’re asking you to step up to the plate.”
Although Stone has been in his state Senate seat for less than two years, he also has a voting record that is scrutinized by some groups. For instance, the California League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club California and the California Teachers Association all gave Stone unfavorable ratings for the votes he cast in 2015 on legislative matters affecting their interests.
On the other hand, the National Rifle Association gave him high marks for the votes he cast.
“There are many things that will show a dramatic difference between Dr. Ruiz and myself,” Stone said. “People will have a clear choice on one ideology and vision for our country or another. I look forward to challenging Dr. Ruiz to a series of debates. I’m hoping we can get five debates in before the primary (June 7) so that the wonderful constituents of the Coachella Valley and the Hemet Valley and the Idyllwild area will have an opportunity to vet both of us.”
How did first-in candidate Dwight Kealy responding to Stone’s candidacy before dropping out?
“The goal has been to have the best Republican candidate. So if every one in the Republican Party and all the groups get together and say, ‘Hey, Dwight, Stone’s better than you, and we’re not giving you any money or any votes,’ then this would be a horrible hobby to spend my next six months doing.”