Last Tuesday Republican Kevin Faulconer won the mayoral race for the City of San Diego. He became the mayor of the 8th largest city in America and gave California Republicans their highest visible officeholder in the State. What does this mean for the Republican Party of California?
Democrats hold a 90,000 voter registration advantage over Republicans in San Diego, and there are fewer Republicans than Declined to State voters. And yet Republican Kevin Faulconer won by a 54%-45% margin. Both candidates were city councilmen; Alvarez, at 33 year old is the younger and least experienced. Alvarez campaigned on a Progressive agenda of raising the minimum wage, spending more on public works, reducing the power of developers and hoteliers in the city and taxing big business.
According to press reports Alvarez spent much of his time trying to turn out Latinos, young voters, renters and “urban voters.” He spent heavily on get out the vote efforts, but did not spend time trying to win over high propensity voters such as older voters, whites and homeowners. Alvarez’s biggest liability appears to be what he and his campaign felt were his largest assets, labor unions—who contributed $4 million to his campaign—and President Obama, and Governor Brown, who endorsed him.
Keys to Kevin Faulconer victory in San Diego
Two key factors in this special election were the low voter turnout, 43%, which is normal for special elections, and absentee ballots; 71% of all votes were by absentee ballots, 29% came at the polls. Overall, 60% of Republican absentee ballots were mailed in to the Registrar of Voters, compared to only 47% of Democratic absentee ballots. Many media reports on the election noted the aggressive, multi-phase absentee ballot campaign that Faulconer and the San Diego County Republican Party deployed.
Kevin Faulconer ran an aggressive campaign, but less as a Republican and more as a “pragmatic problem-solver” who could solve the city’s fiscal problems in a non-partisan race. The campaign itself seldom mentioned his Republican affiliation and the press rarely brought it up. He was perceived as more moderate and more experienced than Alvarez and not beholding to public sector unions.
Not ceding the Latino vote, Kevin Faulconer campaigned heavily in Latino districts, focusing on growing jobs, rather than providing benefits. Jon Fleischman, GOP oriented publisher, reported that “… Kevin Faulconer won not because he was moderate, but because he carried himself as the adult in the race. He’s certainly a moderate on social issues, but he is anti-tax, anti-regulation, and strongly pro-business.”
California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte, reported after the election that “our plan is to build the party from the ground up. Part of that is picking the right fight in the right places. Kevin Faulconer was the right candidate and had enough financial support and a strong ground game” Mr. Brulte favorably compared the Falconer victory to the Andy Vidak win in the San Joaquin Valley last July, as “another example of the right candidate being able to win with the right message.”
The Kevin Faulconer message was one of “inclusion” (pre-election polling showed 45% of the electorate would be non-white), and emphasized his stances on fiscal issues, such as pension reform and contracting out city services, both of which would allow the city to afford more services within the city. Kevin Faulconer is pro-gay marriage, pro-bike,” said the Voice of San Diego, “pro other issues that put him on the left of the national GOP.” It was important for him, said his pollster John Nienstedt, to clarify early on that “he wasn’t a typical Republican.”
The campaign managed a massive precinct and get out the vote effort, with San Diego Republican Party Chair Tony Kravek reporting that the party had recruited and trained 330 precinct workers for the pre-election weekend and election day. The GOP also noted that County Republican organizations from across the State sent precinct walkers and established phone banks to support Kevin Faulconer. The Contra Costa Republican Party, for example, ran phone banks for the candidate during the final several weeks of the campaign, said Contra Costa Republican Party Vice Chair Nyna Armstrong.
The questions for Republicans are: will a strategy as running as “not a typical Republican” work in partisan elections? Will it work for the GOP faithful, independent voters and/or moderate Democrats? Will Republicans choose to unite behind “fiscally conservative, socially moderate candidates, like Kevin Faulconer, and provide volunteer and financial support?
Contra Costa voter registration numbers look much like San Diego’s, but San Diego voters have a history of voting more conservatively. Will the Contra Costa Republican Party be able to run candidates that mirror Kevin Faulconer’s positions on issues, his ability to run an “inclusive campaign” and turn out the organization that won the San Diego mayor’s race? Do Republicans want to run candidates that have Kevin Faulconer’s position on issues? We will know the answers to these questions before the end of the year.