Read more stories in our What We Learned This Year series here.
The Trump era in San Diego hastened a trend that was already underway: the Democratic takeover of local government.
But the same year that saw the ultimate culmination of that process in the region’s largest government – the city of San Diego now has a Democratic mayor, a Democratic city attorney and Democrats in all nine of its City Council seats – also showed that nothing in politics is permanent, and Republicans can still win major offices.
Those victories also came in jurisdictions where voters selected Democrats to represent them at the state or federal level, reinforcing another old saw in the political world: It’s not a winner-takes-all game.
Republicans this year flipped mayoral offices in both the second- and fourth-largest cities in San Diego County. They now hold mayoral offices in six of the county’s eight largest cities.
To be clear, this is still a consolation prize for a party that, in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency, controlled all five seats on the County Board of Supervisors, the San Diego mayor’s office and four of nine seats on the San Diego City Council. The mayoral offices controlled by Republicans represent most of the county’s largest cities, but their combined population doesn’t approach the city of San Diego alone.
But those victories reinforce that however much polarization is increasing, many voters are still willing to split their tickets.
In Chula Vista, voters in the county’s second largest city, where there are more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans, Mayor John McCann defeated Ammar Campa-Najjar. Voters there nonetheless selected Democrats to represent them in the state Senate, the Assembly, the county Board of Supervisors and Congress.
Neighboring National City, like Chula Vista, retained a Democratic majority on its City Council, even while making a change at mayor, where a plurality of voters selected Ron Morrison, a right-leaning independent who has been in elective office in the city since the 1990s.
The parties flipped roles in Imperial Beach, where Mayor Paloma Aguirre held onto the mayor’s office for Democrats, even as Republicans won a majority on the rest of the City Council.
And Escondido served as a reminder that what’s won can soon be lost: Republicans lost control of the mayor’s office there in 2018, when an anti-Trump wave swept through the county and put former Mayor Paul McNamara in office. Four years later, they took the seat back, with Mayor Dane White’s victory.
There are a handful of lessons one could choose to draw from these results. Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey, a Republican, gathered in November that voters responded to policy they disliked coming out of the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional agency on which elected officials from municipalities serve. La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent at the same time reasoned candidates with genuine local roots appeal to voters.
More broadly than both of those is that demographics – or voter registration – are not destiny, and the nationalization of politics has its limits. Even a down-and-out Republican Party can still lock up offices that both parties are invested in winning.