By Steven Greenhut
Some political analysts have warned California Republicans not to read too much into last Tuesday’s decisive victory in the San Diego mayoral race by GOP councilman Kevin Faulconer over Democratic councilman David Alvarez. In California, the troubled GOP should never make too much of rare good news. Yet the party can learn some helpful lessons from last week’s win, which could offer a blueprint for moving forward.
The biggest lesson: Republicans can directly take on the immensely powerful public-sector unions and actually win an election even in fairly hostile territory. The unions provided 80 percent of Alvarez’s funding and they hit the streets promoting their candidate, yet they were soundly defeated. Republicans can’t do this everywhere in California, but it can be done selectively. Public-opinion polls shows a statewide electorate that remains skeptical about the power of unions, even though that same electorate tends to skew strongly in the Democratic direction. That’s good news for the GOP if it approaches the issue wisely.
Losing was such an odd occurrence for local unions that the day after the election the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council sent out a mass email with the subject line, “We Did It!” It read as if it were mistakenly sent out in a Dewey-beats-Truman manner – until one finds deeply buried wording assuring members that “This is not a set back.”
Shocking as it was, the real energy was on the Republican side. When’s the last time that happened? Hundreds of recruits poured into the city. Republican observers called the GOP operation a “machine,” which might not be that much of an exaggeration. Usually, GOP efforts in California are more like a contraption.
The GOP put together a statewide operation that was similar to the one that elected Andy Vidak to the Senate last year in a heavily Latino and Democratic district in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley. Vidak and Faulconer both have distanced themselves from the national party, which has a terrible reputation in California. But they were good candidates for their districts, they worked hard and they campaigned actively in communities that don’t typically vote for Republicans. This was a victory for traditional retail politics and for new party chairman Jim Brulte, who promised to professionalize the party.
The GOP divide has traditionally been between conservatives and moderates. But former councilman Carl DeMaio, an openly gay, pro-choice Republican who led San Diego to pass hard-hitting pension reform, argues that those are phony choices. The GOP has moderates and conservatives who are establishmentarians and moderates and conservatives who are reformers, he explained to me. Faulconer is a moderate on many social issues, but he is a reformer when it comes to unions, which DeMaio says are the establishment in California.
There’s no hiding that the public-sector unions were Alvarez’s main backers. San Diego embraced a far-reaching pension-reform measure in 2012 and its implementation — rolling back pensionable benefits via the City Council — is dependent on friendly leadership in the mayor’s office. The mayor’s election sends messages across the state: You can reform pensions and be rewarded at the ballot box. That’s crucial now that other pension reform efforts have been rebuked by the courts, while San Diego’s approach remains something of the last man standing.
The odd nature of the election certainly helped the GOP in San Diego. In November 2012, former congressman Bob Filner, an East-Coast-style progressive Democrat edged out DeMaio. Filner alienated the city’s political establishment and many residents in laid-back San Diego with his brusque, take-no-prisoners approach – and then watched his mayorship crumble under a sea of harassment and groping allegations.
The melodrama – complete with appearances by attorney Gloria Allred – didn’t enhance the reputation of the Democratic Party. Many Democrats were quick to call for his resignation, but it put Democrats were on the defensive. Furthermore, the GOP does much better when voter turnout is lower. Filner won his election with an 83-percent turnout and the recent special election had a much-smaller turnout of around 43 percent. The GOP success with Vidak was a special election, also, and the party seems adept at focusing its limited resources in one place.
Regardless of turnout, though, Democrats hold a 39.8 percent to 26.4 percent voter registration edge over Republicans in the nation’s eighth most populous city and Faulconer scored a 53.7 percent to 46.3 percent victory. DeMaio came fairly close to winning during the general election – but was swept up in the Obama tide. This time, the Obama last-minute endorsement of Alvarez seemed toxic.
Republicans not only had to fight off Democrats, but had to contend with former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a union-allied moderate Republican who renounced the party after it gave its endorsement to DeMaio in 2012. He turned independent and then eventually became a Democrat. He ran again in the 2013 primary, but was edged out by Alvarez for a chance to take on Faulconer in the run off. Despite his amorphous politics, Fletcher still had support among the city’s large contingent of independent voters. The GOP’s loathing of “turncoat” Fletcher helped inspire its base.
There’s nothing unusual to any of this, but it worked and that’s good enough for a party that has forgotten the feeling that comes after winning an election. Does this mean the GOP is back in California? Heaven’s no. The party has absolutely no chance of winning any statewide constitutional office this year, and isn’t even fielding candidates in some races. The Democrats are solidly in control of the state. But it does show that the GOP can still win a race or two in California if it focuses on some of the basics.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org