Trump supporters appear at an Election Night party at the US Grant Hotel. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

At the end of November, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer called a meeting at the US Grant Hotel downtown. All three remaining Republican members of the City Council came. The Lincoln Club’s president, Brian Pepin, was there. Prominent conservative donors, like developer Tom Sudberry, were there.

It wasn’t just Republicans. The Downtown Partnership’s Betsy Brennan was there, as was Adam Day, the chief administrative officer of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. He was adamant to me that he and the tribe have no party preference.

That party versus no party ambiguity is kind of the point of the discussion they want to have now: Can San Diego’s capitalists continue to rely on the Republican Party to drive their agenda? The party got mauled in the November election. Should the builders, restaurant owners and free market idealists pin their hopes on independents or even Democrats going forward?

Many are already considering backing Rep. Scott Peters for mayor. He’s a Democrat. In City Council District 8, Vivian Moreno, a Democrat fiercely opposed by labor unions and supported by many of the people in the room that day at the US Grant, won her race. She would be a more reliable vote for many housing initiatives than even Republican former City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf. Should Moreno’s race have been more of a priority for the group than Zapf’s?

Zapf was on everyone’s mind. She didn’t attend. She lost her re-election bid by 16 points, an absolute drubbing for an incumbent member of the City Council.

What troubled many on the right about Zapf is that there was no scandal anyone could point to as her undoing. By most accounts, yes, she could have connected better with her voters, hustled more, but she had not seemed to them to be horribly out of step either. Not by 16 points.

John Nienstedt, whose polling firm Competitive Edge had surveyed the race for the Republican Party, told me that eight weeks before the election, Zapf seemed to be in a close race. She was reasonably well-liked. But he found that the single most important variable in the race was not gender, race, neighborhood or anything else like that.

It was President Donald Trump. Zapf won among fans of Trump. She won among the (very) few people with slightly positive or slightly negative takes on Trump. But she dramatically lost among those who had very negative views of the president.

“If you were seen as giving any quarter to Donald Trump, those people with very unfavorable views of Trump were going to vote against you, and that’s the hill Lorie Zapf found herself trying to climb,” Nienstedt said.

Turnout in San Diego County reached more than 66 percent. Compare that with 45 percent in the midterm election in 2014. It’s hard to read that bump as anything but a wave of anti-Trump animosity. Even Zapf’s allies picked up on it. The Lincoln Club and Chamber of Commerce sent mailer after mailer highlighting how Zapf had stood up to the president.

A mailer that put her at a party celebrating Trump’s inauguration had brutal impact. But Zapf refused to denounce the president or otherwise distance herself from him.

“It was the most disgustingly unfair election. I’m done. I’m out,” Zapf told me. She wasn’t in the mood to discuss what the party should do going forward.

A Facebook ad from a labor-funded campaign committee highlighted that Zapf attended a party celebrating Trump’s election.

Attendees thought the gathering at the US Grant may be a moment to reflect and reckon with this dilemma. Would mere association with the same party as Trump ruin candidacies? How would it get better in 2020?

The mayor’s staff, though, used the meeting as an opportunity to tout Faulconer’s policy accomplishments and to assure attendees that they could handle the new Democratic super-majority on the City Council.

It was not what many of them wanted to hear.

At one point, annoyed, Councilman Scott Sherman said it was time for the group to go back to the fiscal issues that had helped usher him into office in 2012. The business community should do more ballot measures, he said, like the one that year that ended pensions for most future employees of the city of San Diego.

Ashley Hayek, a Republican fundraiser, spoke up that the party itself had not learned and adjusted to the new reality – putting the party chairman, Tony Krvaric, on the spot.

“We lost races we should not have lost,” she told me. “The meeting was set up with good intentions but it was a baby step in the face of many steps that need to happen to move forward.”

People in the room said Krvaric responded in the meeting that there were some bright spots for Republicans across the region. Krvaric did not respond to requests for comment.

One of the presenters at the meeting was Ryan Clumpner, a political consultant who had once been active in the Republican Party only to leave it in recent months. He presented sobering statistics for the party. Right now, Republicans have a registration advantage in just one San Diego City Council district: District 5, the longtime Republican stronghold that includes neighborhoods like Rancho Bernardo and Rancho Peñasquitos. Even there, though, Republicans have only a 2-point registration advantage over Democrats and both are behind nonpartisans. It’s not impossible to imagine a successful Democratic candidate like Sunday Gover, who this year nearly ousted Assemblyman Brian Maienschein in an overlapping state Assembly district.

City of San Diego voter registration totals by percent / Image courtesy of Ryan Clumpner

Clumpner pointed out that, since 2016, 263,012 voters had registered in San Diego County. Of those, 103,793 signed up as Democrats and only 39,579 as Republicans. The rest, 119,640, declared no party preference. And he threw cold water on the idea that local voters were keen, as Sherman pined, to get back into taxpayer hawkish advocacy. His data said homelessness, by far, had become the No. 1 issue voters were concerned about. A distant second? Roads.

Years of a growing economy and easier-to-balance budgets had removed finances as a top concern of local voters.

At one point, Councilman Chris Cate spoke up.

He had not fallen victim to the blue wave. The Republican won by nearly 8 percentage points. It wasn’t a landslide, but it was one of the bright spots for the party. Cate had made a clear statement denouncing Trump before the 2016 presidential election. His showing in the primary in June discouraged Democrats from investing in his rival to the same level they had for Zapf’s.

But Cate also seemed to have a stronger connection to his district than Zapf. He entered City Hall determined to tally every service call from constituents, every response provided, every event attended and to make sure he was seen consistently.

“The Republicans who survived this time are the ones who had their own brand. They were well-known enough, well-liked enough and understood enough to be seen as their own thing apart from Trump,” said Dan Rottenstreich, a political consultant for Democrats.

At the meeting, Cate made a pitch to his colleagues that it was the level of service he provided that transcended the concern about being in the same party with Trump.

When I called Cate, he confirmed that was his pitch.

“Republicans need to have a better understanding the makeup of their districts and issues that are important to constituents – we need to listen better and make our solutions clearer rather than presenting them at a 30,000-foot level,” he said.

He said he hoped that the Republican Party, going forward, would accommodate members who did not support Trump.

It would seem they have little choice. And it won’t be an easy balance as the president is himself notoriously unforgiving style of Republicans who don’t support him.

This week, the local Republican Party re-elected Krvaric as its chairman. But the longtime volunteer leader may be unwilling to do the job without a new compensation package.

Correction: Brian Pepin is the president, not executive director, of the Lincoln Club. 

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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