Thursday, Dec. 28, 2006 | Nationally, 2006 was a landmark year for the Democrats, as the party rode a wave of resentment toward the country’s Republican leadership that enabled it to swipe both houses of Congress in the midterm elections.

But the momentum liberals, progressives and everyone else under the Democratic tent gained after the Nov. 7 election didn’t carry over to San Diego, where incumbency, key endorsements and the well-funded political organization of Republican and conservative causes held the trump card in this year’s most competitive and visible races.

Local politicos have decreed that the region – especially in San Diego’s urban areas – has tilted to the left in recent years. Democrats oversaw six of the eight San Diego City Council seats just a few years ago. In 2004, environmental activist Donna Frye, a councilwoman, nearly won the Mayor’s Office in a write-in campaign, and longtime Democratic gadfly Mike Aguirre won the race for city attorney.

“The city of San Diego is not as conservative as it once was, in terms of registration and the kinds of candidates that are elected,” said Republican political strategist Ben Haddad, who chairs the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce’s public policy committee. “There’s a move to the left, but it’s a very subtle change.”

However, Democrats and their causes failed to win in five key 2006 races where they had an apparent leg up over Republicans in voters’ partisan registration. In another race, a Democrat could not capitalize on the taint of Duke Cunningham, the year’s poster child of GOP corruption, in her bid for the disgraced congressman’s House seat.

The favorable results for conservatives can’t be judged wholesale, but rather on unique circumstances that contributed to the outcome of every race, political experts said. However, they noted that the sum of these six contests shows the power of Republican efforts to recruit, market and financially support viable candidates and initiatives.

“Quite frankly, we don’t have the star power they do,” Democratic consultant Christopher Crotty said. “The Democrats in San Diego don’t go as good a job as Republicans in cultivating candidates.”

The victories of state Assemblywoman Shirley Horton, county Supervisor Ron Roberts, Congressman Brian Bilbray, San Diego Councilman Kevin Faulconer, Chula Vista Mayor Cheryl Cox and the city of San Diego’s proposition to outsource municipal employees demonstrated, primarily or in part, that imbalance.

Those Republican campaigns were able to overcome either a shortfall in voter registration or – in the case of Bilbray – the stench of his predecessor.

Household Names Hard to Evict

Roberts, whose 4th district seat represents urban swaths of central San Diego, and Horton, the delegate to the 78th Assembly district of eastern San Diego and Chula Vista, were running in areas that were decidedly Democratic in registration. In Roberts’ case, his campaign faced the prospects of running in an area where 40,000 more registered Democrats resided than voters in his own party.

But the name recognition of those incumbents led each candidate to victory, observers said. Horton, who is also a former Chula Vista mayor, and Roberts, a former councilman and two-time mayor candidate in San Diego, are household names. In addition to vying against entrenched incumbents, the Democrats fielded challengers who lacked viable name recognition or political experience.

“When you have a well-known incumbent that you’re trying to take out, you have to have a reason to do it,” Haddad said. “You have to have something, and they have to know you.”

Both challengers in those races – labor organizer Richard Barrera for supervisor and retired professor Maxine Sherard for assembly – pushed to make expanding health care for working families as a key issue. But the best policy goals can’t sway voters away from incumbents in lower-ticket races unless the opponent is recognizable, observers said.

Neither Barrera nor Sherard ever held office before the 2006 contests, meaning they weren’t easily identifiable outside their key constituencies – organized labor for Barrera, southeast San Diego for Sherard – experts said. Even with more than $1 million funneled to Sherard by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez and the Legislative Black Caucus and others hoping to tint the seat blue, she could not outdo the organization that Horton has built up in the district.

“A lot of credit has to go to the grassroots organization of the Horton campaign,” said T.J. Zane, the executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County, a pro-business political organization. “Her opponent relied on statewide Democratic money, but that didn’t translate into boots on the ground.”

The name recognition that Barrera and Sherard lacked in their battles against sitting officeholders was an advantage that Cox had in her campaign to unseat Steve Padilla in Chula Vista.

Cox is a household name in Chula Vista. She has served as an elected Chula Vista school board trustee and was a longtime teacher and principal in the district. Further, her husband Greg is the area’s county supervisor and held the same mayoral post before that.

The well-known name was enough to knock off Padilla, a union- and environmentalist-backed Democrat who suffered because of political miscues and accusations of ethical lapses. But Cox also enjoyed more financial support from individuals, business groups and the Republican Party to win in Chula Vista, where Democrats enjoy about a 5 percent advantage in voter registration.

Proliferating in the Unaffiliated Contests

While the Chula Vista mayor’s race was attracting the attention of the local parties, the official nonpartisan nature of the position benefited Cox, just as it did for two other South Bay mayor-elects. Imperial Beach and, to a much greater degree, National City both have Democratic registration advantages, but passed on elected liberal candidates for their mayoral posts.

Another Republican that overcame Democratic advantage in his district was Faulconer, who bested environmental attorney Lorena Gonzalez in a contest to represent San Diego’s District 2, which includes the city’s beach and bay neighborhoods. The city’s races are also nonpartisan.

Faulconer benefited by having run for that post in 2002, when he lost to Michael Zucchet. He already shored up a solid Republican following in the district’s conservative strongholds of Point Loma and Mission Hills, where voters were more likely to turn out in a rare January election.

“That was a function of who had the best ground operation, who could pull people to the polls and away from the holidays,” Crotty said. He added, “The Dems in the beach area are young and transients and you can’t count on them as a solid voting bloc.”

Also, before Zucchet was ousted from office upon a bribery conviction in July 2005, Faulconer landed a job at a politically active corporate consulting firm as well as the chairmanship of the Mission Bay Park Committee. The moves allowed Faulconer to connect to the business community while selling himself as a community leader concerned with the natural resources in the district – a tactic that is important to the green-minded district, observers said.

Crotty said he thought the city’s financial and legal trouble, which included a billion-dollar pension deficit and several investigations, also shaped that race. Local commentators fingered union officials and their council allies for the pension mess. Coupled with the conviction of Zucchet and fellow Democrat Ralph Inzunza in the strip-club bribery case, candidates of that political stripe drew extra scrutiny, he said.

“I think local Democrats had to walk a fine line,” Crotty said.

Strong Issues Dilute Party Politics

The city of San Diego’s financial health dominated all other issues in the campaign, Crotty said, and just as Mayor Jerry Sanders’ election over Frye in 2005 showed, “when it comes to being a fiscal conservative, Republicans win that debate almost every time in San Diego.”

That motto proved true this November when Sanders championed an outsourcing initiative citywide, where Democrats have a five-point registration edge. The measure, Proposition C, was fiercely opposed by civic activists and the labor community who warned that for-profit businesses would forego good government in the name of profit. They also argued that outsourcing municipal work would just create jobs without healthcare where positions that provided medical coverage once stood.

But Proposition C rode Sanders’ popularity to an easy win. With a heftier advertising budget, the initiative’s supporters were able to frame outsourcing – which entails a complex process of selecting and monitoring the contractors – in a very basic way: It was a necessary tool that the mayor needed if he was going to fix the city’s mess.

“Prop C was an interesting backlash. The electorate’s intent was to say, ‘you know what you need to solve the problem, here it is,’” said Frye, who opposed Proposition C. “Whether you were conservative or not, there was a general sense that this will help solve the problem.”

Raining on the Perfect Storm

Republicans had a harder time of framing the debate in the 50th House district, which stretched from San Diego’s northern communities to the suburbs of North County. Along with other congressional races this year, the battle for the 50th district featured a referendum on the Republican leadership, which had been shredded by bad news from the Iraq War and corruption scandals such as Cunningham’s.

Francine Busby, a Cardiff school trustee and perennial Democratic candidate Cunningham trounced in past campaigns, was suddenly a viable contender in an open seat where the face of Republican corruption just exited. National Democrats smelled blood, pouring money into her springtime campaign in hopes the race would serve as a bellwether to the fall elections, where the party could vie for House and Senate majorities.

But their efforts were for naught. In both the special and general elections, Busby would fall to Brian Bilbray. A longtime South Bay politico, Bilbray had been lobbying in Washington since being ousted from the House in 2000, when he represented a separate swath of San Diego.

Observers said Bilbray was able to salvage the seat for the Republicans because he outmaneuvered an unpolished Busby, played up his conservative credentials, and rounded up endorsements of the region’s most popular leaders – the sheriff, district attorney, county supervisors and Sanders.

Days before the June runoff in the special election, Bilbray’s campaign highlighted a comment Busby made at a rally that reflected a sensitivity toward illegal immigrants, a miscalculation in a district where Republicans enjoyed a 14-point registration advantage. That Busby gaffe sealed the election for Bilbray, who billed himself as an immigration consultant.

The district’s sharp conservative bent was very difficult for any Democrat to overcome, even as the party picked up 31 seats in the House.

“There was a lot of whooptie-do about whether the Democrats could seize upon the Cunningham scandal, but voters saw it as a relatively isolated incident,” Zane said. “One bad apple didn’t erase the conservative nature of that district.”

Others saw it differently.

“Had the Dems run a stronger candidate, they might have walked away with it,” Haddad said. “They needed a candidate that resonated, and she was not terribly charismatic.”

What Now?

In the 50th District as in the other races, the politicos said recruiting candidates was a weakness the local Democratic Party has to conquer if it is going to be competitive in races like those seen in 2006.

“The Democrats have to go learn how to field an ‘A’ team,” said Steve Erie, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego.

Republicans, with the backing of tourism and real estate developers, will almost always spend more on campaigns, so the development of roster of Democratic candidates will be key to the party’s success, he said.

San Diego County Democratic Party Chairman Jess Durfee said that, while the Republicans won these individual contests, there was some good news from November’s contest.

This year was the first time that, within the county, three Democrats – Attorney General-elect Jerry Brown, Controller-elect John Chiang and Treasurer-elect Bill Lockyer – earned more votes than their Republican opponents in statehouse races. By comparison, in 1994, Republicans swept the state offices in San Diego County.

Still, the Republicans have fought tooth and nail to maintain power, despite the shift.

“In terms of demographics, the long-term trend is Democratic, but this isn’t like L.A., where there was a seamless transition,” Erie said. “It’s going to be like World War I.”

Despite the setbacks this year, Durfee and others said their camp’s momentum is still building.

“I think the burial is premature,” Frye said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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