Staying Classy, San Diego: Takeaways from the 2014 Special Mayoral Election

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

San Diego—California’s 2nd largest city and the 8th largest in the nation—elected a Republican mayor last night.  Before Kevin Faulconer’s election, just one of America’s top 15 cities (Indianapolis) had a Republican mayor and just one of California’s top 5 cities (Fresno) had a Republican at its helm.

While many view San Diego as a Republican city (largely because of the city’s deep relationship with the military, its pro-business attitude, and the region’s role in launching Pete Wilson’s political career), it actually has a split political personality.   In the last four Presidential elections, the Democratic candidate beat the Republican (in two-party vote terms) by an average of 19 points and in the last four gubernatorial contests, the Democratic candidate won, on average, by 1 point.  Meanwhile, since 1998, San Diego has been run by three elected Republican mayors and just one elected Democratic mayor.

Mail-in ballot and Election Day Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) campaigns are the new norm. Elections are all about getting your supporters to vote.  In California, a majority of voters prefer vote-by-mail.  Elections are not only won or lost on the day of, but also weeks ahead of Election Day. While Republican Carl DeMaio and Democrat Bob Filner split the mail-in votes during the 2012 San Diego mayoral election, Filner’s 10 point lead among Election Day voters gave him the victory.  Meanwhile, last night, Kevin Faulconer led Democrat David Alvarez by 13 points among mail-in votes meaning Alvarez needed approximately 64% of Election Day votes in order to scrap out a victory.  While not impossible, garnering such a decisive day-of victory would have been a challenge.  However, since Election Day voters tend to be more Democratic—Faulconer dropped 3 points over the course of the 2013 special mayoral primary vote counting—the Republican had to protect his mail-in advantage with a strong day-of GOTV.  And he managed to do so, splitting day-of votes with Alvarez.

Unions may be losing their electoral luster.  Unions are a force to be reckoned with in California politics.  However, recent elections have given unions a number of high profile flops. First, in June 2012, San Diego and San Jose voters both passed sweeping public pension reform with almost 70% of the vote against the wishes of local and statewide unions.  Then, a few months later in the 2012 state Assembly elections under California’s new top-two electoral system, two union-backed Democratic incumbents lost to Democratic challengers pledging to be independent voices in Sacramento.  In 2013, Los Angeles’ mayoral election became a proxy fight between pro- and anti-union forces.  Eric Garcetti’s resounding victory over union-backed Wendy Greuel was a stinging rebuke of public employee unions in a union-dominated city. Last night, unions spent $4.2 million in support of David Alvarez (compared to just $1.7 million by business groups backing Faulconer), but failed to win either mail-in or Election Day votes. Polling backs up these electoral results that Californians are souring on unions.

Finding the right candidate with the right message for a district wins elections. At the end of the day, the Republican Party can win by nominating candidates that fit their district. Kevin Faulconer won a decisive victory despite San Diego having over 88,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, the city voting for the Democratic top-of-the-ticket candidate by an average margin of 10 points since 1998, and Alvarez getting endorsed by President Obama (who won San Diego by 25 points in 2012) and Governor Brown (who won the city by 10 points in 2010).  San Diego likes to elect pragmatic, moderate mayors, not ideologues. Faulconer’s non-ideological message stressed unity, leadership, and pragmatism versus Alvarez, who vocally supported progressive talking-points.  In a sense, Faulconer shed the national (and even state) Republican image and focused on local issues.  Andy Vidak, another recent Republican victor, did the same in his special state Senate election; Vidak won by focusing on local Republican-oriented issues like water and opposition to the High Speed Rail, but also showed independence by backing immigration reform. At the end of the day, Republicans and conservatives may not have an ideologically pure candidate, but they have one who will support conservative policies much more often than the alternative.  For example, in the 2013 ACU California state legislature rankings, Vidak scored an 83% (the third lowest score among Republican state Senators), but in 2012, Democratic state Senator Michael Rubio, whom Vidak replaced, scored just 10%.  And Rubio prided himself as being a moderate Democrat.

So, what can California Republicans learn from last night?  First, to win, Republicans need to have the right candidate with the right message for their district.  Second, campaigns need to focus on messaging and GOTV efforts from day one. Third, Republicans have to continue their GOTV campaign through the end of Election Day.  And fourth, they should not be afraid to challenge the unions highlighting an opponent’s connections to the special interest.

Last night was a glimmer of hope for the struggling Golden State GOP, but it doesn’t mean the party has turned the corner quite yet.  Both last night and Andy Vidak’s victory came during lower turnout special elections.  For instance, based on results from this morning, last night’s turnout was roughly 37%—half the rate of the 2012 mayoral election turnout. It remains to be seen this November whether California Republicans can replicate their success during a higher turnout election.

At 47, Kevin Faulconer gives state Republicans renewed hope of building a viable statewide bench.  Could Faulconer be an updated version of Pete Wilson? Only time will tell.  Nonetheless, at least, the party seems to have found a roadmap to success.  Now, it’s a matter of whether they can continue to follow it.

Follow Carson Bruno on Twitter: @CarsonJFBruno