San Diego, the eighth largest city in the country, used to be solidly Republican based on its military heritage, retiree population, and its many suburban strongholds. But it has been moving left. Barack Obama trounced Mitt Romney by 25 points among city voters in last year’s presidential election. In that same election, liberal congressman Bob Filner beat libertarian-leaning city councilman Carl DeMaio by six points to become the city’s first Democratic mayor in two decades.
But Filner proved to be a disaster, resigning in August following 20 women stepping forward to accuse him of sexual harassment. The special election to pick his replacement took place yesterday, and leaves Republicans in a strong position to retake City Hall in the general election next January.
The runoff will be between Kevin Faulconer, a pro-business Republican who sits on the City Council. He outperformed the final polls and finished with 44 percent of the vote. His challenger will be David Alvarez, a liberal city councilman who won 26 percent and edged out former assemblyman Nathan Fletcher for the other runoff spot.
Republicans are relieved they will be facing Alvarez, a traditional Democrat with backing from the local Labor Council and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Republican Faulconer would have had a tougher time against Fletcher, who served as a Republican in the legislature, became an independent when he ran for mayor last year, and finally ended up as a Democrat. In his new party’s clothing he won endorsements from Democratic governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and the fire and police unions. “Fletcher is seen by leading Democrats as someone more likely to win over moderate voters in a runoff,” former San Diego GOP chairman Ron Nehring told me recently.
But despite glowing media coverage for his decision to leave the Republican party — capped by a David Brooks’s encomium in his New York Times column — Fletcher was viewed by many voters as an opportunist and “shape-shifter” candidate. The local Democratic party spurned him and endorsed David Alvarez instead. “People hadn’t really had the chance to get to know Nathan because he hasn’t been a Democrat for very long,” San Diego Democratic chairwoman Francine Busby said.
In the runoff, where the choice is now between a moderate conservative and a pro-union Democrat, the smart money is on voters’ playing it safe and not turning over City Hall to a traditional liberal.