President Donald Trump has left San Diego Republicans in a conundrum.
On the one hand, he is not popular in San Diego. He lost San Diego County 56 percent to 36 percent in 2016. Within the city of San Diego boundaries, Trump got only 28 percent.
The antipathy toward him built up rapidly after his inauguration and catalyzed an especially deep opposition along the coast – even conservatives ran ads for their candidates highlighting how much they would stand up to him. Democrats and labor unions pounced on his deepening unpopularity using any connection to him – however tenuous – as a weight around the neck of GOP candidates. So intense was the fusillade against incumbent San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, for example, that she, even unburdened by any scandal, lost her re-election by 16 points.
On the other hand, within the Republican Party, the president is quite popular. And party infrastructure – the money, volunteers and marketing might – remain crucial to local candidates’ success. You can raise a ton of money and seem like you’re on top of the political world, but without a party, you are unlikely to succeed electorally. (See also: Fletcher, Nathan.)
Thus, if you’re a Republican in an area with such deep antipathy toward the leader of your party, what do you do? Local Republicans have had to answer questions about the president’s often noxious takes – especially on border issues. They are part of the infrastructure that is now intensely mobilized to get Trump re-elected. But they also see the numbers, and many of them are genuinely not supportive of the president.
For three very high-profile elected Republicans in 2019, it got to be too much.
First there was Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, who had been mentioned as just the kind of Republican who may be able to make it through this dilemma. He was talked about as a mayoral candidate. In 2018, he held off, barely, a fierce challenge from the left – one of the few Republicans to survive a contest like that.
Soon after his race was certified, he announced in early 2019 that he was becoming a Democrat.
Then there was City Councilman Mark Kersey, also talked about as a potential Republican mayoral candidate. Unlike Maienschein, he did not announce a long list of passionate liberal positions he was now fully amplifying. Kersey said he was the same guy as always, he would just be leaving the Republican Party.
Then, perhaps the biggest one of them all fell out of the fold: District Attorney Summer Stephan. She had been uncomfortable being identified as a Republican in her race in 2018. (Though she was not uncomfortable with the crucial support the party provided.) In October, Stephan announced she too was leaving the party and would be independent.
Kersey is termed out and his political future is unknown. Maienschein is a Democrat. Stephan, however, will most definitely run for re-election and be perhaps the largest case in the state testing whether an independent, with no party to mobilize, can survive and thrive in public office.
Stephan, Kersey and Maienschein each amplified and perpetuated a conversation that shows no sign of abating: What is the future of San Diego Republicans? Have we fully transitioned to a world where it is one kind of Democrat versus another? If Trump wins re-election, can these remaining Republicans continue to avoid discussing him? What alternatives are available for people with center or right-of-center views who don’t care for the president?
No Republican leader has stepped up to provide an answer to any of these.
This is part of our Voice of the Year package, highlighting the people who played a major role in shaping civic discussion in 2019.