Democrats in California can look forward to a good November: The governor is riding high. Republicans are scrambling to find enough candidates to fill a statewide slate. Congressional and legislative races will go lopsidedly Democratic, since Democrats already control the delegations and few are threatened.
But the state Republican party’s dogged effort to return to relevance found a bright spot Tuesday night: the election of Republican Kevin Faulconer as the city’s new mayor, replacing the disgraced Democrat Bob Filner.
The historic importance of the win shouldn’t be exaggerated: Filner was the first Democrat elected as mayor since the 1980s, so San Diego was essentially returning to form with its election returns. The city has always been something of an outlier among big municipalities in the state; the others tend to be strongly Democratic, but San Diego has long had an affinity for moderate Republicans.
But if not a stunning moment, the win did give Republicans a jolt of something fresh: bragging rights as they head into daunting mid-term elections.
Republicans do far better at the local level than higher up the political ladder. Despite representing only 3 in 10 voters, Republicans hold close to half the 2,500 mayoral and city council seats in California, according to a study last year by GrassrootsLab, a Sacramento research and political data firm. At those levels, the contests -- many of them nonpartisan -- tend to be about how money should be spent and whether there are enough cops on the streets.
The difficulty increases in state and national races, when a different set of issues takes hold and Republican views on social issues come into much greater relief. In California, particularly, the party’s views run counter to the wide majority of voters; candidates who do not adhere to party orthodoxy can find themselves caught between loyal Republican voters and dismissive Democratic ones.
Since there has been nowhere to go but up, party leaders have been frank about their need to rebuild in every way possible. During October’s state party convention, a sign of the task ahead came from party chief Jim Brulte, who did not even mention the statewide races in his list of priorities. Instead, his aims were to expand the “farm team” and play strong defense in congressional and legislative races.
Back then, Brulte heralded a surprise Republican victory in a 2013 Central Valley special election for the state Senate, into which the party had thrust more than $200,000 and much volunteer effort (including, he noted, his). That race shared one element with Tuesday’s San Diego contest: It was a special election, which generally benefits the more determined Republican voters.
But a victory is a victory, and this one too was sweet.
"This was a crucial step forward in our continuing efforts to rebuild the @CAGOP from ground up," Brulte declared in a Wednesday tweet.