It started long before the votes were even counted.

“But should Faulconer win, he would immediately become – for a party badly in need of a fresh image – a potential candidate for governor, senator or other statewide office,” wrote the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters.

It’s only ramped up in the aftermath of Republican Kevin Faulconer’s crushing nine-point victory over Democrat David Alvarez Tuesday night.

The New York Times wrote that Faulconer’s win, “raises the possibility that the 47-year-old former public relations executive could become an important leader in the efforts to rebuild the Republican Party in California.”

And why not? Faulconer has made San Diego the largest city in America with a Republican mayor. California has no statewide Republican elected officials and controls less than a third of the state Legislature. Faulconer won in a race where national and local labor unions spent more than $4 million to defeat him and President Barack Obama weighed in to endorse his opponent. No wonder the California GOP’s website looked like this Wednesday morning:

California Republican Party Website, Feb. 12, 2014

Faulconer has instantly become one of the most prominent GOP officeholders in the state. But it’s unclear how much that actually matters for the GOP and for Faulconer’s prospects going forward.

Faulconer’s long been pro-same-sex marriage, pro-bike and pro-other issues that put him on the left of the national GOP. In this campaign, he went even further. He adopted his liberal predecessor Bob Filner’s narrative that the city’s history of moderate Republican leadership ignored the needs of the growing diverse neighborhoods in favor of downtown business.

He largely sidestepped the GOP brand – most starkly when his former spokesman objected to a story because it mentioned Faulconer’s party affiliation. John Nienstedt, Faulconer’s pollster, said it was important for Faulconer to clarify early on that he wasn’t a typical Republican.

“This information needed to come through to persuadable voters,” Nienstedt said.

And that’s what Faulconer did. Later research confirmed that voters liked Faulconer better than they did the GOP, Nienstedt said.

But Faulconer’s not likely to face the same set of circumstances that helped him stroll into the mayor’s office anytime soon.

Low-turnout affairs, like Tuesday’s election, have long favored Republicans in San Diego. But general elections that bolster turnout have typically gone the Democrats’ way.

That makes Faulconer’s 2016 re-election bid a test. Assuming Democrats can push Faulconer to a November 2016 runoff – though that’s far from assured – they’ll likely have the critical mass of voters who’ve pushed them to success in the past. But by then, Faulconer will have the power of incumbency on his side.

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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