Last month, local media was all atwitter with news that the San Diego Democrats were going into the election with an unprecedented near 20 percent registration advantage in the city of San Diego and a 7 percent advantage countywide. Party leaders rejoiced. The pro-Democratic demographic tide, swelling locally and nationally for the last decade, guaranteed a Big Blue Wave of 2016.
Yet for San Diego – like the nation as a whole – that big blue wave just keeps on refusing to crest.
Remember when it seemed like the Age of Democrats had finally arrived in 2012? Bob Filner won the mayorship for Democrats for the first time in a generation. Dave Roberts became the first (and only) Democrat on the County Board of Supervisors since the last ice age. Democrats controlled three of five of both the county’s congressional and state Assembly districts and half the county’s state Senate seats.
Everything was looking roses and sunshine for local Democrats, a glow accentuated by Democratic hegemony in Sacramento and the Obama re-election nationally. Republicans were dead politicians walking, destined for the ash heap of history.
Then came the Filner meltdown and the 2013-14 special election where Republicans rallied behind the moderate if somewhat bland Kevin Faulconer while Democrats divided with pragmatists embracing centrist Nathan Fletcher and hardliners going for David Alvarez. The result: The GOP took back the mayorship.
OK, that was a one-off, Democrats could argue. Fallout from a bad political marriage to a flawed mayoral candidate in 2012 and a weak one in 2014. And anyway, the Democrats could unseat Faulconer in 2016 with a strong candidate building on that inexorable demographic wave.
Then came 2016, and Democrats discovered they had nobody to run against the supposedly vulnerable Faulconer. Possible contender Todd Gloria (who’d been defenestrated as City Council president when fellow Democrat Sherri Lightner teamed up Council Republicans – and still got to call herself a Democrat after that, go figure) decided to go to Sacramento. Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins decided to stay in Sacramento. And the GOP held on to the mayorship.
And then came November. Yes, Democrats held on to their state Assembly and Senate numbers. They even recaptured the city attorney’s office and held on to their 5-4 Council majority. But they failed to add to that majority and they lost their only seat on the Board of Supervisors and they failed to score what would have been a national upset against Rep. Darrell Issa in the 49th Congressional District.
San Diego Democrats now go into the future with no heir apparent to run for mayor nor a strong bench to take over vulnerable Board of Supervisors seats coming up, leaving the big blue wave somewhere out on the indefinite horizon.
San Diego’s GOP may be fighting a delaying action against irrelevance, but they are doing so brilliantly, operating like a well-organized corporate conglomerate. The local party and GOP-leaning organizations like the San Diego County Taxpayers Association are adept at grooming a talented bench of potential candidates (like Chris Cate). They’ve advocated “Boss Politics” for “Papa Politics” as with wealthy developer (and Trump booster) Papa Doug Manchester, successfully rallying party leaders behind Faulconer in 2013. True, the deep pockets of the local GOP – the Lincoln Club and the Regional Chamber of Commerce, spent massively on and lost the campaign against the minimum wage and the Chargers stadium, but by outspending the already scandal-damaged Dave Roberts by almost 2-to-1, they helped grabbed back the county District 3 seat for the GOP.
Meanwhile the Democratic equivalent of the Lincoln Club, Chamber or Taxpayers Association doesn’t even exist. San Diego labor, burned by 2013, seems to have focused on a handful of safer school and college board races this year. They and other local Democrats sat on their wallets in 2016, saving their ammunition for, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Where was the rush of labor, party or independent progressive money to bolster Roberts or take advantage of Doug Applegate’s surprisingly strong June primary showing against Issa?
Demography is not destiny. It’s not enough to have demographic and even registration trends in your favor. You still need to recruit talent, refine a sellable message and spend the money needed to turn your voters out. Which was something the local Democratic Party simply didn’t do this year.
Carl Luna is a professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College.