Column: Republican Kevin Faulconer flopped as a candidate for California governor. So why not try again?
Kevin Faulconer looked like any other sightseer as he paused recently in the middle of Market Street to snap a photo of the city’s graceful Ferry Building.
One minute you’re in living rooms all over California, pitching your run for governor. The next you’re just some guy in an oxford shirt and blue blazer, trundling your roller bag unnoticed down San Francisco’s main stem.
There was a time, not long ago, when Faulconer was the shining hope of flailing California Republicans. As the moderate, policy-focused, not-scary mayor of San Diego, he seemed perfectly suited to remake the GOP’s onerous image, capable of winning enough Democratic and independent support to break Democrats’ long-standing stranglehold on Sacramento.
Squint and you might even see Pete Wilson, another former Republican San Diego mayor who followed that centrist path to Washington and Sacramento.
Unlike gerrymandered states, California may host as many as 10 competitive races
Then Faulconer embraced President Trump, jumped into September’s recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom and began hanging out with the likes of Devin Nunes and others in the mob-rule wing of the Republican Party.
And then, when radio flamethrower Larry Elder joined the race and cornered the MAGA market, Faulconer seemed to go back to being the problem-solving voice of bipartisan reason that had served him so well during his two terms in San Diego.
The result, after all that backing and forthing, was a feeble 8% showing in his bid to replace Newsom.
So naturally Faulconer is thinking of running again, challenging the Democratic governor in California’s regularly scheduled 2022 election.
“I believe the fundamentals of the state need changing,” Faulconer said over black coffee at one of San Francisco’s designer java emporiums, citing the homelessness, crime and indecent housing costs that plague California. “We didn’t get to a lot of those in the recall election, in my opinion.”
Blame it on John Cox, the perennial GOP candidate, and that poor bear he carted around the state. Or Caitlyn Jenner and her hapless vanity campaign. Or YouTube pitchman Kevin Paffrath. Or blame the media. (That’s always a popular go-to.)
At some point, Faulconer said, the campaign became all spectacle and no substance.
“The circus atmosphere it turned into was not one that lent itself to an honest policy debate,” he lamented, though — credit where due — Faulconer tried. He released well-thought-out proposals on taxes, homelessness and overhauling the state’s scandal-plagued Employment Development Department, among other issues.
But Elder soon came to dominate the race. As Faulconer sees it, Elder threw Newsom a lifeline by nationalizing the recall election, turning the campaign from a referendum on the incumbent — a vote the governor might have lost — to a choice between Newsom and an eager stand-in for the deeply despised Trump.
Faulconer, for his part, is not at all interested in talking about the ex-president.
After shunning the reality TV star and serial fraudster in 2016 — “his divisive rhetoric is unacceptable and I just could never support him” — Faulconer did just that in 2020, saying he believed Trump’s reelection would be best for the economy.
He reiterated that sentiment over coffee, but quickly made it clear that if he runs again next year, he will stay “laser-focused” on California and its issues, as opposed to “the national stuff.”
So if Trump decided to come to California to campaign on his behalf, would Faulconer welcome him to the state? Wouldn’t say.
Would Faulconer back Trump if he runs for president again in 2024? Pass.
If it seems like Kamala Harris has vanished, it’s because she’s doing her job of not upstaging President Biden.
There is now a working model for that sort of laser-focused avoidance of Trump. In Virginia, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin deftly sidestepped the former president while managing not to antagonize Trump or his supporters. He’ll be sworn in as governor in January.
But Youngkin had significant advantages over Faulconer. Virginia, while leaning Democratic, is nowhere near as blue as California. Also, Youngkin had a clear shot against Democrat Terry McAuliffe after winning the Republican nomination in an unusual ranked-choice process that eliminated the Trumpiest of GOP contenders.
“You get to one-on-one, it’s a much different contest,” Faulconer said, repeatedly talking about how he would square up against Newsom if they were to emerge in June from California’s top-two primary.
But there’s absolutely no guarantee that Faulconer, should he run, will have the GOP field to himself. An opponent on his right would force him once again to move away from the center or risk antagonizing conservative Republicans. Hence the problem encountered by every GOP candidate running statewide these days: how to appease the party base without putting off the far greater number of Democratic and independent voters.
Faulconer, 54, said he would make up his mind about the 2022 governor’s race sometime early next year. Asked if one factor was whether he saw the campaign devolving into a repeat — bears, celebrity, circus — of the recall’s political burlesque, he responded, “Yeah, of course.” Faulconer chuckled.
Why go through that again? Better a private citizen than a two-time loser.
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