By Andy Cohen
This past Sunday I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on the mayoral special election, hosted by the Pt. Loma Democratic Club. The panelists included La Prensa’s Daniel Muñoz, San Diego Voice and Viewpoint’s Dr. John Warren, NBC San Diego’s Wendy Fry (a veritable rock star in San Diego reporting circles), and myself from the ‘lil ‘ol San Diego Free Press.
The discussion centered not only on the primary race itself, but on where we go from here? What kind of campaign are we likely to see in the coming months leading up to the February runoff to determine who will fill out the remainder of Bob Filner’s term?
Some things to consider about this race: Unlike the June 2012 primary, which featured two Republicans, a converted Independent, and only one Democrat, the 2013 primary featured three rather prominent Democrats and only one Republican. But, like 2012, the Republican frontrunner carried the day, winning a plurality of the vote.
However, in the November 2012 general election, San Diegans did something almost unprecedented: They voted for the Progressive Democrat over the neo-conservative Republican. With two extremes represented, the voters swung left. Will voters do the same in February?
Some numbers to consider: Republican Kevin Faulconer finished 15 percentage points ahead of the second place finisher, Democrat David Alvarez, 42% to 27%. Nathan Fletcher finished third with just over 24%. This was a low turnout election, with an estimated 30% of registered voters in San Diego actually participating, and with low turnout elections typically favoring Republican candidates, it’s not all that surprising that Faulconer—the Republican establishment chosen one—finished on top.
But consider these other numbers, and Faulconer’s margin of victory does seem somewhat surprising: For the November 19 election, there were a total of 683,370 registered voters in the City of San Diego. There were 272,785 registered Democrats, 193,832 registered “Decline to State” voters, and 181,469 registered Republicans. Republicans were outnumbered by Democrats by more than 91,000 voters, and by Decline to State voters by more than 12,000.
The three major Democratic candidates received over 32,000 more votes than did Kevin Faulconer, which presents a major problem for Alvarez heading in to February: In order to beat Faulconer, he’s going to have to corral an overwhelming majority of those votes, particularly those votes that went for Nathan Fletcher.
If, as La Prensa’s Muñoz predicted, Fletcher voters end up splitting roughly 50/50 between the two runoff candidates, Alvarez is in trouble. Which raises the first of many questions for the Alvarez campaign to grapple with: What can they do to convince Fletcher voters to swing their way? It was Muñoz’ assertion that a majority of Fletcher votes came from the northern parts of the city (and according to an inewsource.org analysis, he appears to be correct), which undisputedly is Faulconer territory. Those Fletcher voters, he says, are more likely to break for Faulconer than for the liberal Alvarez.
At a press conference last week following the election, Fletcher announced his retirement from politics, having clearly soured on the profession after what was a dispiriting defeat, and a campaign where he seemed to have few friends and plenty of political enemies: You can survive attacks from the GOP establishment or from Labor, he said, but you can’t survive simultaneous attacks from both. Fletcher got hammered from both sides, and for the second time finished in third place.
Fletcher was clearly beaten down from the rough, albeit shortened campaign cycle. In the immediate aftermath, he made it clear that he was stepping away from politics altogether, eager to spend more time with his family. But after some time away, what kind of role will he be willing to play in the runoff in support of Alvarez? He openly lamented that he hadn’t had more time to establish his Democratic bona fides, having run for mayor less than a year after switching parties. If he thinks there’s even a chance he might run for office again, he would be wise to actively work to elect Alvarez. It would go a long way toward rallying the Democratic base behind him in the long term.
Some other obstacles in Alvarez’ path to the mayor’s office: As Wendy Fry pointed out, negative campaigning works, so we’re likely to see a lot more of it. The question is, what will be the nature of the attacks, and where will they come from? The Lincoln Club and GOP establishment openly supported David Alvarez in the primary, believing him to be the weaker candidate in a runoff against Faulconer. And while most of the negative campaigning in the primary was aimed at Fletcher, relatively little was directed at Alvarez.
The Lincoln Club will now turn its ire on Alvarez, but as the panel on Sunday pointed out, what is there really to attack? His age, for one (he’s only 33 years old), and his perceived lack of experience. Alvarez has been on the City Council for three years, compared with Faulconer’s seven. Those lines would likely have only marginal success at best, though.
It also seems likely that race will factor into the negative attacks in some form. Fear the little brown people, especially those from Barrio Logan who are angling to destroy San Diego’s maritime economy and drive the Navy out of town, according to Faulconer’s backers. And since negative advertising is so effective, who else besides the Lincoln Club will be doing Faulconer’s dirty work? And will Faulconer be able to keep his hands clean amidst the smear tactics that will be deployed on his behalf? And just how dirty will the Faulconer surrogates get?
Speaking of Barrio Logan, what effect with the referendum to overturn the City Council approval of the BL Community Plan have on the election? Alvarez is a strong supporter of the community plan as it stands, Faulconer is absolutely opposed, having actively campaigned on behalf of the referendum. The conflict has turned into one pitting the “little people,” the residents of Barrio Logan with limited resources, against the big corporate interests who have virtually unlimited resources. Will Alvarez be able to turn this issue into an advantage for him?
And since much of Alvarez’ backing came from organized labor, will the Labor Council be able to muster up the funds to continue their support? One member of the audience insisted that labor was tapped out—they marshaled all of their resources in the primary and will only have a limited ability to contribute in the runoff. We’ve heard that before, responded Fry, and yet they always seem to come up with more money when it counts. Will that hold true this time around?
The biggest obstacle in Alvarez’ path to the mayor’s office, however, is the issue of a severely depressed turnout. For some reason—as is typical of off year and special elections—Democrats simply do not turn out to vote. In the November, 2012 general election, the San Diego Registrar of Voters reported that 76% of registered voters in San Diego cast a ballot. Buoyed by the presence of Barack Obama on the election ballot, the Democratic mayoral candidate won.
Last week, that number dropped to 30%, with the results skewed heavily in favor of the Republican candidate, despite the massive registration advantage for Democrats. In order to win in February, Alvarez not only needs to convince Fletcher voters to jump aboard, he will also need to turn out voters to the polls. Failure to improve on that 30% figure will spell certain defeat.
The final, overriding question is this: Will San Diego voters turn out in support of a more progressive, Democratic agenda like they did in 2012? Can that be turned into a motivating factor in Alvarez’ favor? Or are voters satisfied with a return to “business as usual” at City Hall, with the corporate, big moneyed interests dictating city policy?
Stay tuned. The San Diego mayoral race is about to get interesting…..as if it hasn’t been already.