Kevin Faulconer is the new mayor of San Diego, and the only Republican mayor of a large American metro area. He did not just win Tuesday’s special election against Democrat David Alvarez–he won in a landslide, upsetting the expectations of many analysts. While the circumstances of the election were unique–the former mayor having been ousted in a sexual harassment scandal–there are 5 key lessons for Republicans.
1. Demography is not destiny. The conventional wisdom was that the changing demographics of the San Diego area would help Alvarez, especially in the late returns. Alvarez even advertised in Tijuana, Mexico in an effort to drive up the Latino vote. This was the “Obama model”–and it lost, badly. We’ll know more about why fairly soon, but suffice it to say that Republicans can still win–big–in a changing electorate.
2. The polls can be wrong. Remember how, in 2012, Democrats gloated that Republican pollsters were living in a bubble? Well, the most accurate firm in that election, lefty outlet Public Policy Polling, had Alvarez ahead by one just a few weeks ago. Most of the polls, in fact, showed a very close race, with Faulconer up only slightly heading into Election Day. The GOP turned out the vote and delivered a big win.
3. Don’t get sidetracked into race and gender fights. Democrats accused Republicans of racism–not a new charge, or one with any merit, but one that even those making it admitted had no obvious merit. (It was subliminal, “dog whistle” racism, you see.) Republicans wisely ignored those barbs and just told the truth about Alvarez’s record and his relative inexperience. There’s no use in playing nice with today’s Democrats.
4. Early voting rules. The Republicans are finally learning something from the success of the Obama efforts of 2008 and 2012–namely, that early voting matters. In Tuesday’s election, early and absentee voting counted for about half of all votes cast–and put Faulconer ahead by a very healthy margin, much higher than many had expected. The GOP should get serious about early voting nationwide: no more last-minute drills.
5. Ground game, for the win. The unions helped Alvarez outspend Faulconer, and it was presumed by many that the cash would go into building an unstoppable ground game for the Democrat. But it was the GOP that turned in the superior performance, using motivated volunteers to make sure the next mayor after Filner would not be a close ally from the same party. The time to build that machine is now–not 2016.