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This post first appeared in the Nov. 10 Politics Report. Get the Politics Report delivered to your inbox.
For years, political observers have predicted San Diego’s changing demographics would translate to changing political outcomes.
Tuesday’s election results revived those predictions.
A challenger knocked off a San Diego City Council incumbent for the first time in 27 years, winning in a landslide and giving Democrats a super-majority. A Democrat replaced a Republican in the Board of Supervisors District 4, in a landslide, while Democrats flipped North County congressional and Assembly seats, too.
“This feels like the election where San Diego changed forever,” said Rachel Laing, a political strategist who worked on the unsuccessful Measure E campaign.
Major races loom in 2020.
After Mayor Kevin Faulconer easily won re-election in 2016, he’s termed out in 2020 and multiple Democrats are positioning themselves to run while the presumed Republican frontrunner said this week he is out. The county has two open supervisor seats that are viable 2020 Democratic pickups; if they win both, they could go from being shut out on the board to a 3-2 majority within two years and a day. And they’ll have a boost, thanks to an electoral reform that passed Tuesday.
Steve Erie, a retired UC San Diego political science professor, said he first heard predictions that San Diego’s changing demographics would result in Democratic electoral wins during the beginning of the Clinton administration.
Clinton won San Diego County, and Democrats took it as a sign that they had a brighter future in store, he said.
It just never seemed to take.
“The so-called blue wave, we’ve been waiting for it for a quarter-century,” Erie said. “What may happen in the next five years, people thought was going to happen 20 years ago, and it just didn’t happen. But now, the blue wave, it does appear to be slowly rolling to the coast,” Erie said. “Emphasis slowly.”
Countywide, Democrats had a five-point registration disadvantage to Republicans in 2000 and have turned that into an eight-point registration advantage today. Citywide it’s even more stark: Democrats had a four-point advantage in 2000 but have opened a 20-point lead in registered voters today.
The percentage of Democrats, though, hasn’t changed much. Rather, it’s been Republicans leaving the party to become independents that accounts for the large gaps. Registered voters who aren’t in either party increased 13 points in the county from 2000 to 2018, and 14 points in the city.
“It’s been a story of moderate Republicans becoming independents, and they sometimes vote for Democrats,” Erie said.
Despite those numbers, Republicans have regularly punched above their weight in winning elections and holding seats.
Some structural factors that helped them do so are coming down. Term limits on the County Board of Supervisors opened seats, removing incumbency as a hurdle Democrats needed to overcome. And at the city in 2016, and the county this year, voters approved measures forcing all elections to be decided in November, giving Democrats another lift.
But even with all the big changes, the results weren’t uniform. Republican Councilman Chris Cate won re-election by 13 points over Tommy Hough in District 6, where Democrats hold an 8- point registration advantage. And in District 4 and District 8, Monica Montgomery and Vivian Moreno are ahead of fellow Democrats who won their party’s endorsement.
Michael Zucchet, a former councilman, current Port commissioner and leader of the city’s Municipal Employees Association, said he can’t find a coherent through line in Tuesday’s results.
Montgomery and Campbell’s victories, he said, flipped conventional wisdom on its head. But Moreno’s win, since she was a staffer for the district’s incumbent and had his endorsement – despite all the other forces against her — fit together with Cate’s re-election.
“That’s two status quos, and two change elections,” he said. “I see a series of races with their own specific dynamics.”