Overcoming a 13-point Republican voter registration deficit and outspending by $1 million, Kevin Faulconer pulled off a decisive nine-point victory to become mayor of San Diego yesterday. And, San Diego now becomes the largest city with a Republican chief executive.
Unfortunately, victories like this are few and far between for the GOP. Once the party of the big city mayor, Republicans now control only three mayoral seats and roughly fewer than 20 percent of the city council seats in the top 25 most populated cities. It’s a trend that doesn’t bode well for the party’s future electoral success.
Yet a handful of urban Republicans are bucking this trend — and their successes hold important lessons for a national party that seeks to best position itself for the 2014 and 2016 elections.
For example, Republicans who have stemmed the deep blue tide in our nation’s cities have a few key characteristics in common: They’ve championed conservative reforms for improving education, lowering taxes, and providing opportunities for all residents, while avoiding divisive social issues that don’t reflect the beliefs of many city-dwellers.
They’ve also been aided by the failings (both personal and political) of entrenched Democratic interests. For instance, the special election in San Diego to replace disgraced former Mayor Bob Filner created a unique opening for Republicans. Even though President Obama carried San Diego County by almost six points, Republican Kevin Faulconer won with a well-run campaign pulling support from diverse coalitions of business people, faith leaders, a well-known homeless advocate, police union, and Democrats, including a former opponent. He embraced endorsements from the San Diego Jewish World and members of the LGBT community and focused on his experience and platform to restore integrity to the office, increase financial stability of the city, grow the economy, and protect the environment.
Further up Interstate 5 from San Diego is another mayoral race underway where Republicans are poised to take advantage of an electorate that’s recently supported conservative reforms on city pensions. As a bunch of Democrats battle with the incumbent Democrat mayor in San Jose’s June primary, Republican Pete Constant stands alone as an experienced challenger. No stranger to conflict, Councilman Constant is a 14-year police veteran and the lone Republican on the City Council in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by approximately 20 points. But with San Jose residents still experiencing impacts from the recession, they may be open to conservative fiscal solutions once more.
Even in cities where a Republican face long odds, robust campaigning can help strengthen conservative voting margins — with national implications. Consider Colorado, where Republican Martin Walsh is seeking to unseat nine-term incumbent Rep. Diana DeGette by targeting his generation of Millennials and portraying her as an out-of-touch Washington insider. Walsh faces an uphill challenge in the Denver-based district, but has an opportunity to make Republican inroads in the city which yielded 210,000 votes for Obama to 70,000 for challenger Mitt Romney. Considering that President Obama only won Colorado by 113,000 votes in 2012, a grassroots Republican campaign in Denver in 2014 may prove to be a useful Republican investment in 2016.
Similarly, Chicago’s elections in 2014 may have statewide implications. Just last month, the Chicago Republican Party filed petitions for an unprecedented eighteen candidates in 16 districts for the state legislature. These Republican candidates canvassing Democrat neighborhoods could tip the balance to the GOP in 2014 “up ballot” races for U.S. Senate and Governor, considering Republican Sen. Mark Kirk won with just 60,000 votes and Republican Gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradley lost by only 32,000 votes.
Clearly, elections in cities are tough for the GOP. However, by making investments in these urban communities, the Republican Party positions itself for a brighter future. My own effort, CityGOP.org, is launching this week to advocate for more resources for Republicans running for elected office in cities and connect urban Republican parties and candidates with the financial and strategic resources they need to succeed. Also, the national party has put over 130 engagement staffers into the field and opened offices in some urban areas, including Detroit.
It’s an uphill battle to win conservative victories in urban areas. But one thing is guaranteed: If we don’t try, we can’t succeed.
Jill Homan is the Republican National Committeewoman for DC. She served as co-chair for the Romney-Ryan campaign in the District. She launched www.citygop.org to advocate for Republican candidates and the GOP in cities.