Better get to know Kevin Faulconer. He is now the highest ranking Republican elected official in California and the most important urban Republican in America. Not bad for a guy who was hardly known at all just a week ago.
Faulconer, a San Diego city councilman, was elected as the city’s mayor on Tuesday, making San Diego the largest city in America with a Republican mayor.
The election was called after the resignation of disgraced Democratic Mayor Bob Filner. Electing a Republican as mayor of San Diego ordinarily would not be big news; until Filner’s election in 2012, San Diego had a series of centrist pro-business Republican mayors, reflective of the moderately conservative politics of that city. Faulconer, is a protégé of the last GOP mayor, the popular Jerry Sanders who left office in 2012.
What’s makes Fauconer’s election important is that Democrats had partisanized the San Diego mayor, first by electing Filner, a former Democratic congressman, in 2012, and then this year when the party rallied around Democrat David Alvarez, a 33-year-old first term councilman who ran an unabashedly left wing populist campaign modeled on that of successful New York Democratic Mayor Bill De Blasio. President Obama endorsed Alvarez, as did Governor Brown, and the Democratic national chairwoman came to San Diego to campaign for him.
But the Democrats also made a big error. They had initially supported a moderate former Republican turned Democrat Nathan Fletcher on the ground that for a Democrat to win a special election in San Diego he had to be a moderate. But San Diego labor leaders would not accept Fletcher, who was not a “pure progressive,” just a DINO, a Democratic In Name Only. (where have I heard that before?)
Proving that, in fact, the Democratic Party actually is a wholly owned subsidiary of the unions, labor made sure Fletcher could not get into the runoff, and then proceeded to spend $4 million to elect Democrat Alvarez, who had run second to Republican Faulconer in the special election primary.
It should have worked; labor outspent the Republican by a million dollars in a city that Obama had carried with 61 percent in 2012, and where Republicans, at only 27 percent of registration are actually a third party behind Democrats (40 percent) and independent (28 percent).
Alvarez ran unabashedly against business and the establishment. “Hoteliers and developers … have controlled the city for such a long time,” he warned. Alvarez promised not to create more jobs but to strip power and wealth from the rich and deliver it to his low income constituents. Labor’s job was to use their money and their muscle to turn them out. And it seemed to be working; polling showed an initial Faulconer lead melting way until the final poll showed a dead heat going into Tuesday.
So how was Faulconer able to win, and by a healthy nine point margin. Three reasons. First, labor overreached; the unions spent too much money. A few years ago San Diegans voted to reform public employee pensions; Alvarez promised to roll back these reforms. Voters seeing all the labor money in the race asked themselves, well, we know what is in this for labor, but what is in it for us? It did not help that one of Alvarez’s Democratic opponents in the primary endorsed Faulconer on the ground San Diego needed a mayor independent of the unions. The voters agreed.
Second, candidates count. Faulconer, 47, was first elected to the city council in 2006, and comes across as a bit wonkish but moderate in both his demeanor and his politics. Alvarez, 33, is a first termer with no particular background that would qualify him to be mayor of America’s eighth largest city.
Last summer, Democrats blew a safe open Senate seat in the Central Valley by running a first term supervisor with no record to speak of against a Republican farmer with deep roots in the district. The Democrats are showing the hubris often seen in one party states where they think the voters will just ratify whatever candidate the bosses select.
Third, campaigns count. Faulconer ran as an independent, not as a partisan, and appeal to San Diego’s huge independent voter base. He campaigned in Latino neighborhoods even though his opponent was Latino. Pre-election polling showed that 45 percent of the electorate would be non-white, and Faulconer went after that vote. Alvarez’s handlers just assumed he would win non-white voters by an Obama style margin because he was a minority. But working class voters wanted someone who would work at creating jobs not just respond to the needs of the unions. There’s a lesson in this vote for both parties.
When former Sen. Jim Brulte became Republican Party chairman last year he promised to end the GOP’s circular firing squads and concentrate on what parties ought to do, which is to win elections. Tony Krvaric, the San Diego Republican chairman, reported just before the election that his folks had recruited and trained 330 precinct workers for the weekend and Election Day. Since Faulconer and Alvarez ran even on Election Day (Faulconer won big in the pre-Election Day absentees), this organizational work probably made the difference.
There was a time, decades back, that Republicans regularly won special elections in California by superior organization and get out the vote. Since their 2012 disaster, the GOP has won a Democratic Senate seat, and now a Democratic-held mayor’s office by organization and articulating the right message. With a fair number of marginal seats on tap for next November, the question now is whether they can repeat these successes at a general election.