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San Diego Republicans did not have a good 2018, but it’s possible 2019 was even worse.
In a year without an election, they somehow lost control of three long-controlled seats.
San Diego Councilman Mark Kersey left the party, switching to independent in the city’s most conservative Council district. District Attorney Summer Stephan did the same, taking the county’s top prosecutor out of GOP hands for the first time ever. And Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, fresh off narrowly defeating a Democratic challenger in 2018, decided to just go ahead and join Sacramento’s Democratic supermajority.
Last month, during a live recording of the Voice of San Diego podcast, we asked political consultant Ryan Clumpner, who also left the party, if that was the end of the low-hanging fruit. Would we stop seeing defections of elected Republicans from the party?
“I’d be surprised if that were the case,” he said. (A few weeks later, Assemblyman Chad Mayes, who represents Palm Springs and was once leader of the Assembly Republicans, left the party to become an independent.)
The losses during a year in which no games were even played has influential conservatives wondering what’s next for Republicans in San Diego – and what that means for Republicans in California.
And 2020 could provide answers.
The San Diego mayor’s office, held by a Republican for 26 of the last 27 years, is up for grabs. It looked like no politically experienced Republican would run, but Councilman Scott Sherman entered the race late to at least give the GOP a chance. There are five open City Council seats, three include no Republicans at all, while the other two are currently held by Republicans and could represent further losses.
But 2020’s most-watched contests will be on the County Board of Supervisors, a body long controlled by Republicans, that could flip if Supervisor Kristin Gaspar does not win re-election.
“The first and foremost important thing over the next 12 months is maintaining the majority on the Board of Supervisors,” said Jen Jacobs, a longtime San Diego Republican strategist. “Nothing is more important in this town than that. Beyond that, I don’t know how much things matter. That is, at this point, the Holy Grail.”
Without it, Republicans are facing a new shutout on the county’s most influential bodies. They could kick off 2021 with Democrats in charge of City Hall, with just one or two Republicans in Council offices, a Democratic majority on the Board of Supervisors and enough Democratic representation in other cities in the county to give Democrats and their allies say over SANDAG, MTS and the Port of San Diego. It would be a new world of San Diego politics, one of unified Democratic control, full stop.
And yet it was not that long ago that Republicans competed for statewide office in California on the backs of San Diego. It was a necessary component of Republicans’ so-called “fishhook strategy.”
“What was required of Republicans to win statewide was to win commandingly in Orange County and San Diego, those were the populous counties you could score in,” said Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist at the state and national level. “You use the population base in the south to counterbalance losses in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and turn the battleground into the Central Valley and Inland Empire.”
But that strategy is now dead, Madrid said. If Republicans are going to stage another act, it will require a new plan.
“Losing San Diego is losing the whole ballgame,” he said. “That’s the end of viability for the party. It just can’t be done.”
Madrid is not optimistic about any sort of rebirth. The Republican Party, he said, has shown a “unique inability to adapt to the modern era” and has “chosen as its strategy not to participate” in policy debates on areas where conservative ideas could compete, like infrastructure, housing and the environment.
Jason Roe, another longtime San Diego Republican strategist, said he sees the same problem.
“Most elected Republicans are living in fear of the fight rather than leaning in and defining ourselves,” he said. “You look at homelessness, transportation, crime rates – most of the problems people are upset about have been caused or exacerbated by Democrats, but most Republicans are afraid to call them out on it so they aren’t benefiting from any of it.”
In the end, Madrid thinks it’s far more likely that the Democratic Party recalibrates, with a business-friendly center-left coalition emerging to face off against a more progressive, labor-focused coalition.
The party exits this year, Madrid said, reveal a party that has lost the plot – and losing control of the Board of Supervisors could be the final nail.
“To see a party go from a 5-0 advantage to a 3-2 disadvantage in two years is unprecedented,” he said. “It doesn’t happen. If that isn’t a sign that something is terminal, I don’t know what is. The San Diego GOP has taken on a the characteristic of a martyr. It makes itself more virtuous by losing. The more they lose, the more right they were and the less everyone else gets it.”
Jacobs does not subscribe to that dim of a view of things.
In fact, she thinks it’s impossible to assess the state of party dynamics without discussing the attendance at local GOP central committee meetings. They all sell out, with standing-room crowds routinely crossing 1,000 people in attendance.
“From a grassroots standpoint, it is possibly the most energetic and involved central committee in California,” she said. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else in California, and it definitely doesn’t happen at the San Diego Democratic Party.”
Madrid thinks that’s actually a symptom of the problem. The party has adopted a narrowing ideology, which has been good for base enthusiasm but bad for winning elections.
“The San Diego GOP is regressing – it’s becoming a party that would struggle in Alabama, let alone coastal California,” he said. “It’s a textbook lesson in political identity, of how a party in demographic decline doubles down on what is clearly a losing strategy, to cling to some sort of community or identity or past.”
Ironically, he thinks the answer for the party is exactly what many consider its biggest problem: Trump.
President Donald Trump is an unavoidable part of the conversation. News out of Washington swamps any local news that might allow local Republicans to offer an alternative definition of the party. And the opposition to him among highly educated suburban voters, long a reliably Republican voting bloc in San Diego, may be too much to overcome.
But Madrid thinks Mayor Kevin Faulconer has already shown the way to maneuver the issue.
“There’s this fatalistic view that Trump is president so we must toe the line,” he said. “The way to show contrast is to say it, and credibility will come with it. Trump is the most unpopular president in California history, so what do you think will happen if you put on a MAGA hat and start attacking immigrants?”
Roe thinks he found an issue that can provide the party a lifeline. He’s running Gaspar’s re-election bid – likely the race that will determine if the party can hold the board.
An early poll in the district found 28 percent of residents listed roads, traffic and infrastructure as a significant concern. The next highest-rating issue came in at only 15 percent.
Then, a few weeks later, Hasan Ikhrata, director of the regional planning agency SANDAG, proposed shifting remaining funds from TransNet, the voter-approved sales tax for transportation, from highway projects to transit projects.
“I thought, ‘This is a gift,’” Roe said. “To me, it’s just like pension reform. By demographics alone, we shouldn’t be winning, then pension reform got us in the game. There are things that get us in the game, and as long as we don’t unilaterally disarm, we’re here.”
That’s one thing he says former Councilman Carl DeMaio, now running to replace the soon-to-resign Rep. Duncan Hunter in Congress, was right about. He forced the coalition to fight. And when it did, it won.
But for that strategy to work, the right-of-center world needs a functional coalition, and Roe fears that the coalition that carried them to victory – the Chamber of Commerce, Restaurant Association, Association of General Contactors and the Associated Builders and Contractors, along with the party – has folded.
“Our funding base comes from a business community that is fickle,” he said. “The business community makes uninformed decisions and then sits on its wallets once it decides if someone can or can’t win. We can’t make our case if we’re holding a revolver and our opponent has two machine guns.”
Faulconer was outspent when he won in 2013 – but he had enough to fight, and run a real campaign, Roe argued. In 2018, the right-of-center donor class didn’t believe former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis had a chance against Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Nathan Fletcher, and so the resources weren’t there to compete, argues Roe (who ran Dumanis’ campaign).
“We’ve got to persuade the donor class. We’ve defied gravity multiple times over the last decade. The biggest thing that’s changed is our side unilaterally disarmed,” he said.
Jacobs is ready to get on board with Roe’s call to line up behind transportation, traffic and infrastructure. In fact, she thinks part of the problem is that Republicans have ceded that ground too much lately.
“My fear is that we’ve attempted to coddle environmentalists and liberals, and we’ve gotten away from showing what a Republican government looks like. With SANDAG, instead of coddling people who think we should have stupid bike lanes, the first thing we have to do is fix the traffic in people’s lives. No one is going to bike. We’ve coddled environmentalists on transportation, and we coddle NIMBYs, which is all elitist liberals,” she said.
In the county GOP’s pivot to transportation, Madrid sees a replay of the state party pinning its 2018 hopes on repealing the gas tax increase, which was unsuccessful, or former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 campaign to overturn the state’s vehicle registration tax. They might be winning issues, he said, but they don’t build a sustainable and resilient coalition.
“Over the last decade plus, there’s been this trend for Republicans to use these one-off issues as a way get back into the game, but it’s a sign of desperation,” he said. “You can’t build a party on a one-off gimmick. You need a governing philosophy and a better set of priorities. It’s the sign of a rudderless party.”
Roe, though, said he’s not so sure. He said polling makes it clear that Republicans can connect with voters on things like highways versus public transportation, or on state moves to decriminalize certain felony offenses.
And if there’s no connective tissue between those issues, that might not be so bad.
“It’s about finding segments of voters who aren’t necessarily Republican, and putting them together to build a plurality or a majority,” Roe said.
Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the possibilities for Republicans on the City Council in 2021. One or two Republicans could remain on the Council after the 2020 election.