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Kevin Faulconer: An Upset in the Making?

Though the 2020 election was just months ago, candidates are already gearing up for the 2022 midterm elections. This is especially true for California, where the top prize in 2022 is the Governor’s Mansion. Accelerating this process is incumbent Governor Newsom’s looming recall, a movement that has gained steam as California attempts to navigate its way out of the COVID-19 crisis. If successful, California could have a new governor as early as fall 2021. One figure helping to lead the charge against Newsom is gubernatorial hopeful and the former mayor of my hometown of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer. Faulconer has emerged as one of the GOP frontrunners in the battle to replace Newsom. But who is Kevin Faulconer, and how did he rise from local politics to the potential face of the California GOP? 

Faulconer was Mayor of San Diego from 2014 until term limits in 2020. He had won the office in a special election after the previously elected mayor, Bob Filner, resigned due to sexual harassment allegations. Before then, he had served as a member of the San Diego City Council from 2006 until 2014. Though Faulconer has been a registered Republican for his whole political career, he holds notably progressive viewpoints on social issues and is a product of San Diego’s leftward lurch in politics this century. Many people believe that San Diego has a reputation of being one of California’s more conservative cities, standing in contrast to the liberal bastions of Los Angeles and San Francisco. This is often attributed to San Diego’s large military population and the existence of wealthy and suburban neighborhoods both within city limits and within San Diego County. The evidence of a shift — likely a result of the growing influence of Latino voters, emphasis on environmental issues and the liberalization of the suburbs — was apparent in 2008, when the County voted for a Democrat in the presidential election for only the second time since 1944. Since then, both the City and the County have grown increasingly more Democratic: the County has voted for a Democrat in each subsequent presidential election, and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has flipped to Democratic control in 2020 for the first time in more than 30 years. In 2014, the start of Faulconer’s mayoral term, Democrats had a slim 5-4 majority in the City Council. After the 2020 elections, this grew to a commanding 8-1 Democratic majority, capping what I believe to be one of the most massive political shifts in American history.

PART 1: Faulconer’s Record

San Diego was in the midst of this historic partisan shift when it elected a Republican as mayor in 2014, seeming to represent a temporary break from the trend. This made him the only Republican mayor of a top 10 city in the United States during his tenure. Despite his Republican affiliation, he was quite socially liberal as mayor. As he detailed in an interview with National Review, Faulconer is pro-environment, which he considers “a must” for Republican politicians in California even though the national party has recently been staunchly against environmentalism. In 2014, Faulconer released a climate action plan that put San Diego on track to use 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. (Notably, this plan took inspiration from a draft written for then-Councilmember Todd Gloria, who succeeded Faulconer as mayor on December 10, 2020.) In 2018, Faulconer announced his support for community choice aggregation, getting lauded from even the most progressive San Diegans. Even before the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision of Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized and protected same-sex marriage nationwide, Faulconer unconditionally supported same-sex marriage and even marched in the San Diego Pride Parade in 2014. In 2019, he supported the Equality Act, unmatched among Republicans in the national spotlight. From being pro-choice to supporting the integration and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but still being anti-tax and vetoing a minimum wage increase, Faulconer is the living embodiment of “fiscally conservative, socially liberal,” a classification that has all but evaporated from mainstream politics due to polarization. 

Faulconer only had two blunders during his tenure: his failure to prevent the San Diego Chargers from moving to Los Angeles, and the city government’s inability to respond promptly to a Hepatitis A outbreak, ravaging through San Diego’s homeless population. To Faulconer’s credit, he immediately learned from his mistakes.  He pivoted to making homelessness a signature issue of his tenure, helped to reduce the rate of homelessness in San Diego county, and took the unprecedented action of temporarily housing homeless people in the Convention Center at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Contrary to his mayoral reputation, in mid-to-late 2020, Faulconer’s rhetoric showed signs of a rightward, more mainstream-Republican shift. In June, responding to Black Lives Matter protests in the city and calls for the divestment of funds away from police, Faulconer maintained his support for police, though he did enact some police reform measures. Even though he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 citing divisive rhetoric, Faulconer visited Trump in 2019 to discuss trade, and voted for Trump in 2020 citing the economy, despite the crash that had resulted from the coronavirus crisis. He was also taking jabs at Newsom’s performance as governor presiding over California’s worsening pandemic situation. All this seemed to suggest a grand pivot he was making toward a gubernatorial campaign. And this is exactly what happened: less than a month after he ended his term as Mayor, Faulconer launched an exploratory committee to run for governor. He officially announced his candidacy a month after that.

PART 2: The Looming Recall

California has some of the most generous recall laws in the nation: to send a state official to a recall election, the number of signatures required total only 12% of the number of votes in that officeholder’s last election. Since Governor Newsom’s election in 2019, Republicans have been trying to take advantage of California’s generous recall laws to try to recall him. Five separate recall petitions have been filed and circulated, but all have failed to make it to the ballot. But sixth time’s the charm; the number of signatures, pending verification, has passed the threshold required to trigger a recall election.

The petition contains many Republican talking points outlining their reasoning to oust Newsom that are, frankly, cookie-cutter criticisms for any Democrat in statewide office. The petition organizers allege reasons such as “infringement of 2nd Amendment rights,” imposing fines for not wearing masks, and supporting undocumented immigrants with taxpayer money (side note: undocumented immigrants paid $3.2 billion in California taxes in 2019). However, even Democrats have reason to be disappointed with Newsom’s leadership, especially during the pandemic. He has been accused of hypocrisy for not following his own lockdown guidelines, most notably dining in a large unmasked group at the French Laundry in November. His and his government’s messaging on guidelines has been muddled and confusing, which may be a factor in California leading the nation in COVID-19 cases and deaths. In addition, pressure is mounting on Newsom to reopen public schools due to learning concerns from parents and students. Finally, the recent tech exodus potentially spurred by Newsom’s high corporate taxes is not only a Republican concern, but it may have caused members of both parties to either lose their jobs or to relocate. Pandemic leadership and California’s taxes are also among the published reasons calling for a recall.

The extent of Newsom’s missteps is disputed, but it is clear that the reasons organizers are aiming to recall him is more for political leverage than for genuine bipartisan disapproval. It is unclear whether Newsom will survive the recall election, but initial projections suggest he will, because of California’s current status as an ultra-blue state and his tepid yet positive approval rating, despite a mixed response to his pandemic handling.

Faulconer is doing all he can to further sink Newsom while he is receiving bad press, repeatedly going on the offensive against Newsom’s policies and actions. Faulconer has particularly been critical of Newsom’s hypocrisy, pandemic response, and slow school reopening efforts, the aforementioned “bipartisan” appeals in an effort to drum up support for the recall. His website and his rhetoric point to Newsom’s ‘failed leadership’ concerning these areas, and Faulconer pledges to be a more responsible and focused executive. Though Faulconer has a large hill to climb, there is, in my view, a viable blueprint Faulconer could follow to help his chances in pulling off a California-sized upset.

PART 3: A Possible Path 

Faulconer and the GOP have two things working against them: limited time, and the fractured state of the California Republican Party.

First, it is imperative that Faulconer and other Newsom critics successfully get voters to recall Newsom come fall, a tough ask. If the recall succeeds, it is likely that his centrist principles will lead to congregated support among moderate voters, and a victory on the subsequent replacement ballot. Things get complicated if viable Democrats or independents also declare campaigns and put themselves on the replacement ballot, but Faulconer still has a good chance if this happens. However, if the recall fails, Newsom will likely run for reelection in 2022 when the coronavirus pandemic has long passed. By then, Democrats will become much more apprehensive of voting Newsom out of office if there is no viable Democratic replacement.

Second, much like the national Republican Party, the California GOP is deeply divided over whether to continue the “Trumpism” brand that resonated with a large niche of Republican voters but eventually cost Republicans the Senate, House, and presidency within four years. Trump’s rhetoric had its effects in California too, costing California House Republicans 7 of their 14 seats in 2018. They eventually won back 4 of those districts between 2018 and 2020, but this effort was spearheaded by moderate Republicans like Young Kim and David Valadao, the latter of which voted to impeach Trump for incitement of insurrection in January. Some California Republicans, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, have stayed loyal to Trump, leading to a significant decline in national approval. In Politico/Morning Consult approval polls for the Bakersfield-area congressman, his net disapproval has doubled after the January 6 Capitol riots, going from around a -7 approval rating average to a -14 average. Other Trump allies, such as Tulare’s Devin Nunes, have received staunch criticism from residents in his district for his allegiances. Considering the unpopularity of Trumpism nationwide and growing districtwide resentment, there is no conceivable way in which a Trumpist candidate could win a statewide office in California. 

The other major Republican candidate in the race is businessman and 2018 candidate John Cox, who is attacking Faulconer for being too liberal and corrupt, calling him “Gavin Faulconer” in an ad. He seems to be jockeying for the Trump base, but things could get complicated if more Trump loyalists, like Trump administration official Richard Grenell, enter the race. Grenell, who hinted at a run at CPAC in February, has coalesced support from power players in California like Carl DeMaio, who called Faulconer a “Never-Trumper” despite Faulconer’s 2020 vote for Trump.

To maximize Faulconer’s chances, he must not bend to Trump’s will or try to appease only Trump’s base. This is not a national election, and California is nowhere near as polarized as the rest of the nation: it voted to kick Trump out by almost a 30% margin. And it seems like Faulconer must build a diverse coalition composed of Republicans, independents, and Democrats who are itching to recall Newsom or at least look to new leadership in 2022. And it seems like Faulconer is distancing from Trump, dodging the question of his support by claiming that he is focused on California and not the national scene. He even declined to state whether he would want Trump’s endorsement, leading to a Twitter chastisement from Donald Trump Jr. Only time will tell if Faulconer’s balancing act will prove helpful in his pursuit of the highest office in California.

In today’s 24/7 news cycle, it isn’t too early to start thinking about the 2022 election, especially as Governor Newsom’s recall election looms. Faulconer has to pull off a big upset in an increasingly blue state, but given Newsom’s potential unpopularity as he continues his hesitancy around reopening the economy, the Former Mayor of San Diego may have just the chance. He’s got the appeal, given he was a Republican mayor in a Democratic city. The best thing he can do is continue his broad electoral appeal, select pertinent issues to discuss, and claim to work for all Californians. The worst thing he can do is to succumb to the deeply unpopular national GOP agenda and pressure from the Trumps and the MAGA movement, in which he would likely lose in a landslide in deep-blue California. He is one of the few California Republicans that can claim to be disconnected from this toxic club and must capitalize on it as California gets closer to its second-ever recall referendum. Kevin Faulconer has proven himself to be the comeback kid: let’s see if he can pull off his own “California Comeback”.

Featured Image Source: Tristan Loper, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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