In California, where no Republican could muster the support to advance to a November runoff in a rare open U.S. Senate seat, San Diego’s Republican incumbent mayor crushed two liberal challengers by more than 35 points, avoiding a general runoff.
Mild-mannered and moderate, Kevin Faulconer and his campaign appear to be testing a novel approach for gaining ground on behalf of the state’s shrinking GOP. Rather than doubling-down on conservatism or hammering racially-tinged wedge issues, Faulconer courted the Latino vote.
“Creo que todos somos parte de una comunidad,” ran his first TV campaign ads of the season on Spanish-language networks. “I believe we are all part of one community,” it translates. But no translator was necessary because the sandy blonde Point Loma resident speaks semi-fluent Spanish.
“We come from different countries, different cultures and we don’t all speak the same language,” Faulconer says on the commercial in Spanish, while shaking hands with families and small business owners throughout San Diego. He picked up his laid-back style and bilingualism in his school-age years in Mexico in a student exchange program. In the ad, he continues: “But, we all share the same aspirations. Every one of us deserves the opportunity to succeed.”
Faulconer’s re-election campaign coincided with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s intense criticism of Mexican immigrants, a group Trump said are criminals and rapists, with promises to deport 12 million people. More recently, Trump decried a San Diego federal court judge for unfavorable rulings on a lawsuit against Trump, blaming the judge’s Mexican heritage.
“I could never vote for Trump,” said Faulconer on Election Night. “His divisive rhetoric is unacceptable and I just could never support him.”
Latinos comprise about 39 percent of the total population in California, and after decades of being on the losing end of conservative candidates’ political ambitions – starting with Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 “Save Our State” initiative - millions have felt compelled to register to vote, although Latinos continue to punch under their weight at the ballot box.
Meantime, California Republicans have failed to win a single statewide election for a decade, and they continue to lose ground in voter registration numbers, now trailing Democrats by more than 17 percentage points.
The state’s more than 15 million Latinos outnumber the roughly 14.9 million non-Hispanic whites, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers available. But the demographics hardly match any anti-immigrant rhetoric meant to alarm voters about masses of leaching and service-hungry destitute people swarming across the border.
More than 90 percent of Latinos in the California labor force hold a job, according to the state Employment Development Department, and legal immigrants make up more than 80 percent of the state’s Latino population, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Trump’s proposal to build a 1,000-foot long concrete wall across the U.S. Mexico border is regarded by Faulconer’s team as economically irresponsible.
“The mayor is focused on nurturing our mega region with Tijuana. He has a great relationship with Tijuana Mayor Astiazaran. He’s building bridges. He’s not building walls,” said Francis Barraza, Faulconer’s campaign manager.
As more specific voter data continues to roll in from Tuesday’s election, a preliminary glance shows Faulconer capturing a majority of the vote in minority neighborhoods like San Ysidro, Paradise Hills, and Encanto.
“Faulconer dominated the vote citywide with few exceptions,” said Vince Vasquez with the National University System Institute for Policy Research. Vasquez, an election demographic analyst, noted high support for Faulconer in San Diego’s predominately African-American and Asian Southeast areas.
State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat who represents some of those same under-served South Bay neighborhoods, was not convinced by his efforts.
"Woo-hoo," Gonzalez said. "He's not a racist and knows he can't embrace a racist. That's politically expedient for a California Republican. But unless he is actively working against Trump or trying to change his party or leaving his party, I'm not impressed."
Faulconer has dismissed his party’s aspirations that he take a long-shot at the governorship in 2018, saying he plans to focus on San Diego, and improving the economy and services in this border region.
“When I look at the strength and the fabric of San Diego and our Latino community, our entrepreneur spirit that helps define us, I hope that we could be the national model that says, ‘This is how we do it,’” Faulconer said.