Despite a large disadvantage in voter registration numbers, Republican Kevin Faulconer remains the frontrunner in the November 19 mayoral special election.
By Andy Cohen
San Diego is sort of an odd duck politically. In a state that’s as deep blue as any in the nation, San Diego stands out as one of the few hopes for Republicans to control a major city in the most populous state in the Union.
Consider: California has 53 seats in the United States House of Representatives, yet only 15 of them are held by Republicans (two from San Diego County). In 2010, Democrats swept every statewide office by a wide margin. Democrats achieved near supermajorities in both the State Assembly and State Senate, falling only a few seats short of essentially neutering state Republicans. As of 2012, consider state level Republicans neutered.
The State Senate is currently occupied by 28 Democrats and 12 Republicans. San Diego is a part of four different Senate districts, split evenly with two Democrats and two Republicans. In the State Assembly, Democrats currently hold a 53-25 advantage over Republicans (with two seats vacant). San Diego County contains six different Assembly districts, evenly split at three apiece.
Of the major population centers in California, only San Diego and Orange Counties stand out as the outliers politically. Voter registration wise, Democrats hold the edge in San Diego County with an advantage of only 27,000 out of 1,583,801 total registered voters.
Move to within the San Diego city limits, and thins get very weird. Bob Filner was the first Democrat to be elected mayor in 20 years. Republicans dominated the top seat at City Hall despite Democrats holding a significant advantage in voter registration. On the City Council, Democrats hold a tenuous 5-4 advantage, but only because of the ninth council district seat created by redistricting and mandated by the Strong Mayor form of government.
There are currently 677,069 registered voters in the City of San Diego; 270,932 Democrats, 181,287 Republicans. Republicans are even outnumbered by Decline to State voters, who count in at 190,206.
And yet Kevin Faulconer, the only Republican running in the 2013 Mayoral Special Election (there were three Republicans in the June 2012 mayoral primary—go figure) is the hands down favorite to place first in the November 19 election. Recent polling has Faulconer either in first place or running a close second behind newly minted Dem Nathan Fletcher, with City Councilman (and Democrat) David Alvarez running a not-too-distant third.
So how can Faulconer—a staunch fiscal conservative in the mold of Carl DeMaio–perhaps the most divisive political figure in this city’s recent history, Bob Filner notwithstanding—stand a chance with the numbers so seemingly against him? He does not in any way represent the values that vaulted Bob Filner to the top spot over DeMaio last November. And with nearly 90,000 more registered Democrats, logic says that Faulconer should be in trouble.
But Faulconer has a number of things working in his favor. First, he is going to get the overwhelming majority of the Republican votes. Republicans certainly won’t vote for Alvarez, who will be seen as too liberal for them. Some might consider the more conservative Fletcher, despite the local GOP establishment’s efforts to smear him into oblivion for abandoning them last spring. But ultimately, they will show up in droves for their champion, Faulconer. Current polling has Faulconer with a very comfortable lead (poll commissioned by Doug Manchester’s UT-San Diego and KGTV Channel 10, hardly non-biased organizations, and when it comes to politics and polling, hardly credible, as we saw with last November’s election. So take it with a grain of salt). The Lincoln Club and GOP establishment smear campaign against Fletcher appears to be working like magic.
Democrats, on the other hand, are split among Fletcher, Alvarez, and former City Attorney and lightning rod Mike Aguirre (although expect Aguirre’s effect on this election to be marginal at best), almost assuring Faulconer of a top two finish and a spot in next March’s runoff.
There is also the matter of how those 190,000 Decline to State voters will break, which is anybody’s guess. It’s reasonable to assume that they will tend to prefer the more moderate candidate, viewed as more middle of the road and more representative of their non-partisan preferences. Fletcher would seem to be that candidate, but then again, Faulconer is working very hard to sow an image as the most moderate of moderate candidates; pro-choice, accepting of same-sex marriage, and champion of the “little people” despite his extensive record to the contrary (see: Barrio Logan Community Plan quagmire as most recent exhibit #1). His faux concern for “neighborhoods” is sure to win him many voters who like what they hear but who tend to not do a whole lot of research into the candidates.
The other major factor working in Faulconer’s favor is the fact that voter turnout tends to be extremely low during off-year and special elections, and low turnout elections almost always favor Republicans. This will pose a challenge to David Alvarez, who will surely lock up the hard core lefty base on November 19, but especially for Nathan Fletcher, who will need to make significant inroads with the Decline to State crowd who really has no vested interest in this election. In addition he’ll have to convince a significant number of perhaps-a-little-on-the-fence and less than enthusiastic Dems to cast their ballots for him. Turning them out to vote will be a major obstacle for Fletcher.
In a perfect world for Democrats, the GOP brand that Faulconer is making every effort to sprint away from would be absolutely toxic to San Diego voters—particularly moderate voters—leaving a runoff election between Alvarez and Fletcher. But this is a less than perfect world, and a less than perfect city (electorate), and Fletcher and Alvarez are left to duke it out for second place and a spot in the runoff. The runner-up will then have a lot of work to do in order to bring the Aguirre voters and the rest of the Dem crowd with him into March, otherwise we really are in for a return to (Republican) business as usual at City Hall.