Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in eight of the nine City Council districts in San Diego. Yet, Republican Kevin Faulconer defeated Democrat David Alvarez in last week's mayoral election by more than nine percentage points and more than 22,000 votes (update: post-Election Day vote counting has closed the gap to 6.4 percent, or 18,384 votes). In the wake of the election, some Republican political operatives said the result indicates a rejuvenated GOP in San Diego. Obviously, they said, Faulconer appealed to many Democrats and independents (one-third of voters citywide identify as neither Republican nor Democrat).
Maybe. But there are four City Council districts where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 30 percent (Districts 3, 4, 8 and 9, all south of Interstate 8), and those are the four districts that saw the lowest voter turnout. In contrast, the district with the highest turnout was District 5, the only district that has more Republicans than Democrats.
So, we don't think we're going way out on a limb in saying that, for whatever reason, Republicans were more energized in this special election than were the Democrats; Alvarez didn't exactly capture the electorate's imagination.
A story in U-T San Diego's Sunday paper by Craig Gustafson gushed over Faulconer's nice-guy appeal and knack for reaching across the political aisle to solve problems. The stylistic differences between him and former mayor Bob Filner "may very well be a major reason why city voters chose Faulconer to replace Filner as San Diego's 36th mayor," Gustafson posited.
But Faulconer's campaign positioned him as a maverick independent and a political moderate, and it went out of its way to avoid the "Republican" descriptor, even though, as Gustafson noted, "Faulconer holds political views nearly identical" to unabashed Republican Carl DeMaio. Alvarez, on the other hand, campaigned authentically as a progressive.
Faulconer also benefited from brutal, deceptive attacks on Alvarez by the Lincoln Club, an archconservative political-action committee, but he was able to appear above the fray because PACs, by law, act independently of the campaigns. The fact that Faulconer hammered Alvarez on his union backing would suggest that such an attack polled well with likely voters, and Alvarez didn't have an adequate response. Democrats will need to explain why union support isn't a terrible thing, or there'll be trouble ahead.
At any rate, come the first week in March, Faulconer will be the mayor, and time will tell whether his policy agenda matches his populist campaign. Because he's finishing Filner's term, Faulconer is less than two years away from having to officially begin his campaign for reelection, and make no mistake: The 2016 race has unofficially begun. To maintain his newfound centrist appeal, Faulconer must change his stripes to some degree.
Faulconer's most likely challenger is Democrat Todd Gloria, who's riding a huge wave of popularity after stabilizing city government as interim mayor in the wake of Filner's tumultuous downfall. The charismatic Gloria will return to the 10th floor of City Hall a much brighter star as he resumes his role as president of a City Council that's expected to have a 6-3 Democratic super-majority once a Democrat is appointed to sit in Faulconer's old District 2 seat until December (six votes can override a mayor's veto).
Gloria is saying all the polite things about cooperating with Faulconer to tackle problems, but he's also vowing to pursue an ambitious progressive agenda, highlighted by spending homelessness dollars more effectively, implementing a Climate Action Plan and raising the local minimum wage. Faulconer no doubt will oppose the wage hike, but he'll have to agree on homelessness funding in order to be consistent with his campaign. The climate plan will be a real pivot point: Does he side with Gloria on what's likely a popular policy among San Diego's independents? Or does he fall back into the warm embrace of local business elites, who'll probably try to de-fang the climate plan?
Look for Faulconer to do whatever he can to help District 6 Councilmember Lorie Zapf, a Republican who's being forced by recent redistricting to run this year in District 2, as well as Chris Cate, the Republican Party's choice to fill the open District 6 seat. Districts 2 and 6 are swing seats heavy with independent voters. Zapf and Cate, like Faulconer, will have to tack to the center to win.
This is going to be a very interesting year.