Richard Preuss, a newly elected member of the Republican Central Committee, isn't like his fellow committee members. He's not an entrepreneur like party chairman Tony Krvaric, and he's not an established political figure. For 23 years, he's worked for the Chula Vista Police Department as a civilian community-relations official, and for all of that time, he's been an active member of the Chula Vista Employees Association, an organization affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. You read that right: Preuss is a Republican union man. It's exactly that perspective that motivated Preuss to run for the Central Committee, the body that guides the workings of the San Diego County GOP.
“I would like to see the Republican Party and working people get back together again,” he told CityBeat. “There's been a breach between the party and working families, and [the families] are the strength of the Republican Party.”
It's the kind of new idea the Republicans are considering in the aftermath of Election Day 2008, aka the Republican beat-down. With crushing defeats at every level, from the presidency to the San Diego City Council, the party was in a tizzy: Recriminations were cast, fingers pointed and teeth gnashed. But two months later, the mourning period seems to be coming to a close. Beneath the hullabaloo of the upcoming presidential inauguration can be heard a hearty debate over the direction of the party: Court Latinos by softening the stance on immigration? Reinvigorate evangelicals by going super-hardcore on social issues like abortion and gay marriage? Put budget issues front and center to reclaim the fiscal hawks? At the state and national levels, the debate consumes the party.
But locally? Preuss is one of the few Republican voices calling for major change. Sure, there were a few initial howls of anguish in November, when the election showed defeats in two San Diego City Council races considered tossups, a hard-fought Chula Vista City Council race and a crucial swing state Assembly race. The center-right blog Red County San Diego published a few posts calling for the resignation of Krvaric, accusing him of incompetent strategy and poor distribution of party funds. One anonymous poster even went so far as to publicly invite termed-out Assemblyman George Plescia to take over the party chairmanship.
But the moment swiftly passed. Cooler heads began assessing election results and analyzing what happened. Plescia declined to seek the leadership role. In December, Preuss and the rest of the Republican Central Committee met to select a chairman, and although a few people were nominated for the post, Krvaric was overwhelmingly re-elected.
While some members of San Diego's cognoscenti debated whether Republican candidates had been caught in the Obama flood or whether they'd been outmaneuvered in the campaigns, Krvaric's reelection showed that when it came to party members, they mostly wanted to know which towels best remove Obama water.
“Locally, we were kind of the victims of the broad national trend,” said Mark Kersey, a Republican Central Committee member, told CityBeat. “In a lot of cases, we had good candidates, good messages, good campaign teams, and they didn't win, largely due to what was happening with the national election.”
Republican blogger and former La Mesa City Councilmember Barry Jantz agreed: “It was a difficult year—we saw it coming. It's not just the chairman. The rank and file [of the party] is a pretty close-knit, small group. The non-elected drive the opinion of those who were elected. And the rank-and-file is saying we want to continue with our leadership.”
The sentiment was oft-repeated in interviews with other committee members, though none so strongly as Republican political consultant Duane Dichiara, an ardent party man but not a committee member. Dichiara ran several losing local campaigns, including City Council races for April Boling and Phil Thalheimer. Since Election Day, he has argued in every forum possible that the wave of enthusiasm for President-elect Barack Obama was the tide that swamped all Republican ships.
“It's the mere fact of the wave that it has very lethal capability,” he told CityBeat. “A wave doesn't just carry the top of the ticket. If the wave was just the top of the ticket, it would be called an ‘election.'”
Dichiara and others don't believe the Republicans need a significant change of message. They blame President Bush for taking the party away from its core ideals of fiscal responsibility and small government. When it comes to the national debate on party philosophy, the local Republicans seem to have resolved that, some East County rabble-rousers aside, they are part of the business wing of the party, the part that wants balanced budgets and low taxes, even if that means moderating on conservative social values.
“I think broadly that's true,” Kersey said. “We certainly have social conservatives, [and] we have social moderates, but one thing that unites everybody in San Diego is the fiscal-economic side of the equation.”
Krvaric did not return CityBeat's numerous phone calls, but Kersey said Republicans need to redouble voter-registration efforts, recruit more volunteers and keep the pumps primed for the stream of Republican registrations he believes are sure to come as people become disillusioned with Democratic rule.
“You could make a pretty good case that Obama's popularity has peaked,” he said. “It can only go back down, considering the hype and expectations.”
But is staying the course the best plan?
“I wouldn't be so sanguine, if I were them,” said Glen Sparrow, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University and an observer of San Diego's political scene. “Demographics are not on their side.”
Buoyed by the rising sea levels of Obamamania, Democrats in 2008 took the lead in voter registration countywide for the first time since 1984, a trend that Sparrow thinks could become a permanent part of the local political oceanography.
Consider these figures and projections from the San Diego Association of Governments: In 2000, non-Latino whites made up 55 percent the county's population. This year, they make up half. But in 2030, SANDAG projects 38 percent of the county's population will be white, the same percentage as Latinos. Latinos already represent 30 percent of the population, up from 27 percent in 2000. Now also consider that according to exit polling from Edison Media, nationwide, Latinos voted for Obama 67 percent to 23.
Republicans are keenly aware of these figures. Dichiara and Republican pollster John Nienstedt both highlighted the Democrats' registration edge as a major challenge for the party. But mainly they think they can win over these voters with their good-government message.
But it's this kind of thinking that worries people like Preuss and Republican political consultant Tom Shepard. In the last several election cycles, Republicans have relied heavily on an election loophole called “member communications” that allows them to send unlimited mail to members. Shepard thinks this kind of campaigning is overly partisan for San Diego County's nonpartisan elections.
“The results of that have not been completely positive from the standpoint of winning a coalition in those districts that are increasingly either tossups or lean Democratic,” he said.
Meanwhile, Preuss has already begun lobbying for a less-partisan, more consensus-oriented approach to solving problems. He points to the terrible budget messes across the county, and he said he'd like to see Republicans reach out to Democrats and other groups to try to solve these problems, instead of “standing on opposite sides of the fence.”
He said he has introduced his ideas in Central Committee meetings, and he has felt heard by the party leadership. But he also cautioned not to expect a suddenly changed Republican Party: “No new idea will be fast in coming.”