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Assemblyman Brian Maienschein / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Earlier this month, the speaker of the California Assembly dispatched one of his lieutenants, Bill Wong, to the 77th District on San Diego’s northern end. It’s a traditionally Republican part of the state — tucked between Carmel Valley and Poway — represented since 2012 by Brian Maienschein, a former San Diego city councilman.

Wong advised the campaign on strategy and fundraising, even going door-to-door as part of the canvassing effort.

His presence is yet another sign that Democrats are taking the 77th Assembly District race seriously.

“Sunday’s profile is compelling,” Wong said, referring to Democrat Sunday Gover. She’s a mother and a businesswoman, he noted. “And she has post-2016 energy going for her.”

Maienschein’s campaign is sitting on $1.3 million, while Gover has less than $75,000 — yet Gover performed better in the June primary than many had imagined. She grabbed a higher percentage of the vote than Maienschein’s last Democratic challenger did in the 2016 general election — when Democratic turnout is typically higher — causing Wong and other political operatives to take note.

California 77th Assembly District candidate Sunday Gover / Photo courtesy of Sunday Gover’s campaign
California 77th Assembly District candidate Sunday Gover / Photo courtesy of Sunday Gover’s campaign

Though the decision to run was her own, Gover fits within a national Democratic strategy to cultivate progressive women who can challenge male Republican incumbents at the statehouse level. There’s evidence the strategy is working. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee says Democrats — men and women — have flipped 44 seats since Trump’s inauguration.

Wong and others are betting that a blue wave is about to hit northern San Diego. As proof, they point to two events: Republicans getting locked out of the neighboring 76th Assembly District race this year, and Hillary Clinton’s strong showing throughout the region in 2016. She beat Donald Trump by 16 percentage points in Maienschein’s district.

The area’s demographics are changing — although not in the way that such things are normally talked about. As the U-T recently pointed out, the 77th District is getting older and whiter while adding more Democrats to the voter roll.

In November 2012, when Maienschein was first elected to the Assembly, Republicans enjoyed a 7.5 percent margin over Democrats. That lead is now less than half a percentage point — essentially even — while the number of independents has ballooned.

Last week, Gover’s campaign released the results of a poll that mirror the voter registration figures and show the two candidates in a tie, with another quarter of the electorate undecided, to push the impression that the 77th is a district that can be flipped.

Among some political operatives, there’s a sense that the district might have gone for a Democrat years ago if it weren’t for Maienschein. He’s still remembered for the fire recovery centers he organized following two major wildfires, and he has a reputation for being easy to work with.

On the campaign trail, Gover has highlighted health care and the cost of college. Local Democratic leaders say they plan to blast Maienschein for voting against major climate change legislation, for taking money from oil companies, for his A rating from the NRA and for his larger political affiliation.

They believe Maienschein’s war chest won’t insulate him from the man in the White House who now leads the GOP.

“Money cannot erase the Trump brand, no matter what Republican you are,” said William Rodriguez-Kennedy, president of the California Young Democrats and the San Diego Democrats for Equality.

State Assembly members have no control over the decisions of Congress, but California lawmakers have positioned themselves as a check on federal power — and Democrats intend to beat this drum in the 77th District.

“We’re the wall against the Trump administration,” said Jessica Hayes, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party.

Unlike the president, though, Maienschein tends to avoid controversy.

He’s carved out a niche in Sacramento for pushing bills that focus on pets and animal shelters as well as regulatory tweaks to trusts and estates.

His brand is rooted less in ideology and partisanship than in local politics, said Ryan Clumpner, a political consultant who recently left the GOP. “People remember Brian Maienschein and the wildfires. They don’t necessarily think of Brian Maienschein and national Republican politics.”

For Clumpner, the key question of the race is whether independents in the 77th, whose numbers have grown as the GOP shrinks, are “simply disaffected Republicans who will stick with Brian Maienschein.”

Gover has some of the state’s most recognizable names behind her, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

In fact, seemingly every elected Democratic leader in the San Diego region has endorsed Gover, with one notable exception: state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins.

Atkins and Maienschein go back. They served on the San Diego City Council together and their professional relationship has carried into the Legislature. Last year, Maienschein broke ranks with his party and cast a key vote in favor of Atkins’ Building Homes and Jobs Act, which created a new fee to fund developments for low-income residents.

On the Assembly floor, Maienschein cited a growing homelessness population in San Diego. He later told Voice of San Diego that his experience on a local homeless commission brought him face to face with people who live on the streets.

“This issue is very personal to me,” he said. “It’s not a hypothetical.”

His yes vote allowed a Democrat in a swing district to vote no and still push the measure along.

Atkins has not endorsed Gover in this election, and her 2020 campaign consultants did not return requests for comment. Nor did Maienschein’s campaign.

San Diego County Democratic Party Vice Chair Melinda Vasquez ran for the 77th District in 2016. She said she struggled to raise money because for much of that election cycle, Assembly Democratic leaders were unwilling to challenge Maienschein. Atkins was speaker of the Assembly from March 2014 to March 2016.

“I kept being told that Brian was a good Republican,” Vasquez said. “‘But it’s Brian. He comes through for us on a couple of votes that are important, and we don’t want to upset him.’”

Hayes said she disagrees with the justification, but that she could appreciate the demands of Atkins’ job in the leadership.

“She does what she has to do to get her bills through,” Hayes said. “I don’t always agree with it, but I like the outcomes.”

Vasquez said she took a loan from her 401(k) to pay the candidate filing fee.

But after Atkins handed the reigns of the Assembly speaker’s job to Anthony Rendon in March 2016, he gave Vasquez an endorsement and some money.

The changing demographics of the district, combined with the support of Rendon and other leaders,  gives Gover a real shot at winning this time, Vasquez said. Plus, Democrats have a supermajority in the Assembly.

“They need [Maienschein] a lot less than they needed him before,” Vasquez said. “He’s able to show up for you on a couple of occasions, but you could get somebody who shows up for you all the time. Which one do you want?”

Maienschein made history earlier this year as one of two incumbent Republican legislators to earn an endorsement from Equality California, the state’s largest LGBT organization. But he split the endorsement with Gover.

The decision surprised more than a few local Democrats, considering that Maienschein is straight and Gover is a lesbian. He did, however, have a perfect score with Equality California in 2015 and 2017. Democrats see the split endorsement as a win: The organization could have given him the endorsement outright, but didn’t.

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