Unless you work or reside in the proximity of the 916 or 619 area codes, odds are you’ve never heard of Nathan Fletcher.

A second-term Assemblyman from San Diego, Fletcher is the first War on Terror combat vet (Marine Corps Intelligence specialist) to serve in California’s State Legislature.

Fletcher’s young (turned 35 in December), an active legislator (28 bills enacted, including 2010’s “Chelsea’s Law” targeting sex offenders), politically connected (his wife served as a deputy chief to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and was a spokesperson in the two Bush 43 presidential campaigns), and very ambitious (he’s currently a candidate for mayor of San Diego).

And, until earlier this week, Fletcher was a Republican and potentially a rising star in the party.

But no more.

On Wednesday, and with only 70-or-so days remaining until a June 5 mayoral primary in which he’s trailing badly, Fletcher stunned California’s political community by announcing that he was now an independent – in California-speak, “decline to state” (here’s his explanation).

Thus begging two questions:

1)  Is this the case of a candidate leaving a party . . . or more a matter of the party leaving the candidate?

2)  What, if anything, does it say about the GOP’s struggles to make inroads into the “millennial” vote – children of the 1970s and later?

Cynics didn’t waste any time noting that, as recently as earlier this month, Fletcher was touting himself as anti-tax, family-values conservative – i.e., run-of-the-mill Republican talking points.

Then, on March 10, he was snubbed by the San County GOP, which chose to endorse another Republican in the mayor’s race – for Fletcher, a blow in terms of both prestige and ability to raise money.

Three weeks later, and tied for third in the polls at 10% (assuming there’s no majority winner in the primary, the top two finishers facing off in the general election), Fletcher bolted from the GOP.

The cynical assumption: Fletcher needs at least another 10% of the vote to survive the primary cut – he won’t find that as a Republican, but he might as a born-again independent.

That said, there’s another angle to the story – one that’s discomforting to some California Republicans.

A month ago, a reporter asked me how the California GOP can restock a cupboard that’s bare, to put it politely (every California statewide officeholder’s a Democrat). The example I chose: Nathan Fletcher – putting him on the Pete Wilson path to success.

Consider the parallels: Both Wilson and Fletcher are Marine vets; both served three-plus years in the Assembly before running for San Diego Mayor (Wilson being 37, two years older than Fletcher, at the time of his mayoral win in 1970). Wilson ended up serving 12 years as San Diego’s before going on to win two U.S. Senate and two gubernatorial terms – in all, a three-decade career in California politics.

And like Wilson, who usually campaigned with at least one credential that went against his opponent’s conservative-loathing stereotyping (Wilson was pro-choice; opposed offshore drilling; advocated child development programs), Fletcher also cut against the conservative grain. That would include:

  • Backing a resolution supporting gays serving openly in the military;
  • Cutting a bipartisan deal to raise taxes on some out-of-state companies, and giving tax breaks to businesses employing California workers;
  • Supporting legislation requiring gone-third of the state’s power come from renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, by 2020;
  • Supporting a law requiring schools to include the contributions of gays, Pacific-Islanders and the disabled in social studies lessons.

Those are four ideas that won’t fly with many conservatives. However, they’re more in line with younger Californians – and the crucial bloc of“millennial voters” (“Gen Y” Americans born in the late 1980s and early 1990’s) who by 2020 will represent at least 38% of the voting base in national elections.

President Obama won an estimated 68% of that vote in 2008. Although there’s speculation, based upon this Pew Research Center report released last fall, that Obama’s not feeling the same love from millennials as he did in ’08 (Pew had Obama leading Romney by 26% among voters age 18-29; Romney led by 10% among voters 65-and-up), the “age gap” still exists – like the “gender gap” and the “Latino gap”, a hurdle for Republicans in winning national office (though one that’s less discussed than the GOP disconnect with women and Hispanics).

I’ll defer at this point to Margaret Hoover, great-granddaughter of the 31stU.S. President and author of a terrific book that outlines how the GOP can better connect with millennial voters. Here, she explains how that generation might be receptive to a pragmatic conversation about job-creation and spending and entitlement reform.

Nathan Fletcher, now an ex-Republican, is by definition a 30something Gen-Xer, not a millennial. But his political record was built, in large part, by pragmatic choices that would seem, in Ms. Hoover’s way of thinking, part of the cure for what ails the GOP with young voters.

I’ll leave it to others to decide if the Assemblyman’s decision to leave the California GOP was fueled by spur-of-the-moment opportunism or a more authentic and conviction-based frustration that was years in the making.

But this much seems evident: the party now has one fewer candidate whose style and approach seem well-suited to broadening the party’s reach to the millennial crowd that’s certain to be voting in the decades ahead.

And in California, one loss – any loss, for that matter – is a loss Republicans can’t afford.

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