Courting Coastal Republicans in District 1

Courting Coastal Republicans in District 1

Carmel Valley is proving to be a key battleground area in the race between Phil Thalheimer and Sherri Lightner for the District 1 council seat. Photos: Sam Hodgson

Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2008 | The three-way primary battle for the District 1 City Council seat was decided in June largely by three things: location, location, location. Democrat Sherri Lightner, and Republicans Phil Thalheimer and Marshall Merrifield all won handily in and around their home bases.

Lightner, who won the primary with 36.5 percent of the vote, dominated in La Jolla. Second-place finisher Phil Thalheimer won a large portion of his 33.8 percent of the vote in Rancho Peñasquitos, where he lived for more than a decade. And Merrifield’s 29.5 percent came mostly from his home area of Carmel Valley.

Now, with Merrifield out of the running, the battle is on between Lightner and Thalheimer for the more than 10,000 votes he left on the table. To win that battle they will have to deal with a species of voter known as the “coastal Republican.”

For all of the homogeneity in Carmel Valley and neighboring Del Mar Heights — white, affluent families are the norm — its residents don’t vote along easily identifiable partisan or ideological lines. Indeed, registration as a whole in District 1 is just about equally divided among Democrats, Republicans and decline-to-state voters.

Election Day in November will be far different than it was in June. Turnout will likely more than double that of the primary given that it is a presidential election year. And campus turnout at University of California, San Diego was suppressed in the June primary because it was finals week.

Elections with high turnouts and a large number of young voters generally benefit Democrats. But Thalheimer also has an edge because together he and fellow Republican Merrifield garnered nearly two-thirds of the district-wide vote in the primary.

But even when these two competing phenomena are taken into account, veteran observers of District 1 politics say the race can’t be won without the coastal Republicans. These voters are fiscally conservative, but more socially liberal than base Republicans and keen on the environment.

“This is San Diego’s iconic coastal district,” said campaign consultant Tom Shepard, who ran Merrifield’s primary campaign. “On cultural and environmental issues it is more progressive-leaning than registration totals would suggest. People who ignore that do so at considerable risk.”

Merrifield is such a Republican, and so are many of his neighbors in Carmel Valley. Councilman Scott Peters, a centrist Democrat, won the seat in both 2000 and 2004 by successfully courting these voters.

However, neither Thalheimer nor Lightner is a perfect fit for coastal Republicans.

The 50-year-old Thalheimer is viewed as a classic conservative. His core message of fiscal reform at City Hall strikes the right chord with coastal Republicans. But his stances on immigration and gay marriage are decidedly right of center, and his active roles in the Mt. Soledad Cross and Jessica’s Law (a law designed to punish sex offenders) issues have cast him as somewhat of a culture warrior.

The 57-year-old Lightner, however, comes off as a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who could be counted on to fight for environmental and social issues. But she doesn’t talk the talk of a fiscal reformer. She is for the living-wage ordinance and against Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plans to privatize government.

Thalheimer, who moved to Carmel Valley in 2007, acknowledges his reputation as a rock-ribbed Republican. But a lot of it, he said, comes from the way he has been characterized by Peters (whom he challenged in 2004), and Lightner.

“I wouldn’t call myself socially conservative,” Thalheimer said. “The view presented of me was that of a far-right winger. They painted me as a person who would turn parks into parking lots.”

Thalheimer touts an endorsement from Merrifield, and works hard to present an image as a tough fiscal reformer.

Merrifield and Shepard agree with Thalheimer that voters in Carmel Valley put fiscal reform at City Hall as their top issue. “If that is the level this election is contested on, then advantage goes to Thalheimer,” Shepard said.

However, Merrifield said his endorsement of Thalheimer was mostly an endorsement of Sanders’ fiscal reform agenda, which includes the mayor’s privatization program and the pension reform agreed to in July. He said he doesn’t know Thalheimer well. “We only met during the (primary) debates,” Merrifield said.

Political consultant John Kern, who isn’t involved in the race, disagrees with Merrifield and Shepard, arguing that City Council races are almost always decided on local neighborhood issues and the personality of the candidate. “You have to look at the candidate,” he said. “Are people enthusiastic about the candidate?”

It is on these levels where Lightner stands in contrast to Thalheimer. Her win in the primary is widely attributed to the enthusiastic support of her La Jolla base. And she has come out strongly against two big public works projects that many fear will degrade the quality of life in the district.

She opposes a proposal to build a bridge linking Regents Road over Rose Canyon in University City. And important to Carmel Valley residents, she has taken issue with plans to build freeway ramps to connect east-and-westbound State Route 56 to north-and-south-bound Interstate 5.

Supporters of the bridge project, which include Thalheimer, say the bridge is needed to ease ever-worsening traffic congestion. Lightner, and other opponents, say the bridge will damage the ecosystem of Rose Canyon, and they question the extent to which it will alleviate congestion.

With the freeway project, residents of Carmel Valley and neighboring Del Mar Heights are worried that CalTrans will seize a number of homes through eminent domain in order to make room for the new connectors. Residents also worry about increased traffic noise in their neighborhoods. Thalheimer has said he supports the project even if it does result in some home seizures by CalTrans.

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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