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Can A Republican Be Governor Again In California? Kevin Faulconer Will Try To Carve Arnold-esque Path

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Former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer announced his candidacy for California governor at a press conference at an elementary school in San Pedro on Feb. 2. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)
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It's a strange situation for a politician: announcing a campaign for an election that may not materialize.

Pledging to usher in a "California comeback," Republican and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has jumped headlong into that unknown, officially declaring his long-expected candidacy for governor of California -- either for a recall election targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom, which has yet to qualify but could come as soon as August, or the regularly scheduled 2022 gubernatorial primary.

Faulconer rolled up in a school bus to a Tuesday morning press conference outside a public school in San Pedro, saying: "Our problem isn't with our people. Our problem is with our government." He added that "public schools should begin safely opening now. It just goes to show Gavin Newsom has botched the basics ... and he must be replaced."

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The announcement came on the same morning that a new poll indicates declining approval of Newsom's performance.

Faulconer also defended his record on fighting homelessness in San Diego. The former mayor has said the crisis was a turning point that spurred city leaders to action, including opening bridge shelters and safe parking lots. Last year, he was praised for temporarily converting part of the massive downtown convention center into a homeless shelter.

But critics who spoke to the Times of San Diego said Faulconer's tenure was marked by police cracking down on homeless people and criminalizing camping on the street. Homeless advocates argued that muddied the waters of data indicating the number of unsheltered people in San Diego dropped by double digits between 2019 and 2020, because those people may have been driven into hiding by aggressive enforcement.

At his press conference, Faulconer said he was proud of his actions: "I did not allow tents on the sidewalk in San Diego, because I believe that if you allow someone to live in a tent on your sidewalk, you're comdemning them to die in that tent."

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It's a message that echoed his campaign video, in which Faulconer is seen driving past homeless encampments, saying: "Governor, letting people live on the streets isn't compassion. Sending billions in unemployment checks to criminals isn't prosperity. Partying with lobbyists during your lockdown isn't leadership."

The last point took a dig at Newsom's broadly panned dinner at the Michelin-starred French Laundry restaurant in the Napa Valley, which appeared to violate the state's safety guidelines.

The Governor has since apologized, and said the dinner was a "bad mistake" -- but it's one many voters won't easily forget, says Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

"Short of drop-kicking a baby seal, it'd be hard to turn people against you more than to take advantage of high class things you have access to while most people are stuck at home during a quarantine crisis," Luna says.

Faulconer joins another Republican, John Cox, who ran unsuccessfully against Newsom in 2018 and has said he plans to wage another campaign. Cox, a businessman who lost to Newsom by more than 23 points, has also pumped $50,000 into the recall campaign.

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CAN A REPUBLICAN WIN IN CALIFORNIA...EVER AGAIN?

On paper, a GOP candidate has a snowball's chance in Death Valley of becoming Governor of California, where Republicans make up less than a quarter of registered voters. But there is a recent precedent here.

Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled in 2003 and replaced by a Republican. According to political consultant Dan Schnur, the recall qualified "because of the fervor of grassroots conservative activists, but ultimately, it was a much more centrist candidate, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who prevailed."

"Faulkner's positioning himself the same way that Schwarzenegger did 17 years ago, but on a much more challenging political landscape," says Schnur, who has worked for Republican campaigns and now teaches political communication at USC's Annenberg School. "This California is a much deeper shade of blue now than it was [in 2003]."

GOP supporters hope there is a viable game plan to follow, one carved out by Schwarzenegger, the last Republican to win statewide office in California, who took advantage of a longshot recall effort and dissatisfaction over Davis' handling of an economic crisis.

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Newsom's approval rating is declining among voters. According to poll results released today by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, just 46% approve of Newsom's performance as governor, while 48% disapprove, 31% of whom disapprove strongly. The poll, conducted last week, questioned 10,000 registered voters. It's a big shift from last year when large majorities approved of the job Newsom was doing.

"Kevin Faulconer's only route to the governorship would be precisely [the recall] scenario, because in a regular cycle, he would be a sacrificial lamb," says political science professor Luna. "But if there is a split field in the recall, and there's several Democrats running -- and he manages to be the lone Republican voice -- he has a chance of winning."

That's a lot of "ifs." And add another challenge to the list: To consolidate conservative support, Faulconer must head off challengers to his right, such as conservative talk show host Carl DeMaio, a longtime rival in San Diego politics who bashed Faulconer as a "go along to get along" RINO -- Republican In Name Only.

"[Faulconer] is generally too moderate for the conservative wing of the Republican Party," Luna says.

Faulconer recently reversed course on the biggest name in Republican politics: former President Donald Trump. In 2016, the San Diego mayor said he could never back Trump, but four years later, told KPBS that he voted for the president in 2020 because he believed "that was the best [decision] for our economic recovery."

WILL THIS RECALL ACTUALLY HAPPEN?

Is announcing a campaign before the recall petition gathers enough signatures to go before voters tantamount to putting the cart before the horse? Maybe.

Recall sponsors face a March 17 deadline to gather nearly 1.5 million verified signatures. County registrars then have until April 29 to verify them. Two groups -- California Patriot Coalition and Rescue California -- are gathering signatures for the effort.

The most recent report and summary show the statewide total of valid signatures was 410,087 as of Jan. 6. The signatures were verified at a rate of more than 84%.

On Sunday, the campaign announced that its total number of raw signatures gathered is 1.3 million. To safely clear the bar, factoring in the verification rate, recall sponsors will have to hit a target of submitting around 1.8 million signatures, a campaign spokesperson told LAist.

A potential special election ballot would have two questions:

1. Do you want to recall Governor Newsom, yes or no?

  1. If yes, who should replace him? (This question only comes into play if more than 50% of voters approve the recall.)

Importantly, if Newsom is removed by voters, the winner of the recall election only needs to win a plurality of votes cast, not a majority.
WHO IS KEVIN FAULCONER?

After serving two terms on the San Diego city council, Faulconer was elected in a 2014 special election to replace disgraced Mayor Bob Filner, who resigned amidst sexual assault allegations and later pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and battery.

During Faulconer's nearly seven years leading San Diego, the city faced a devastating Hepatitis A outbreak centered in homeless encampments downtown that killed at least 20 people and sickened hundreds. The city ended up more than doubling spending on homeless services between 2017 and 2019.

As a rare Republican leading a solidly blue city, Faulconer inspired talk about his potential for higher office. He resisted pressure from his party to challenge Newsom in the 2018 gubernatorial election, announcing in June of 2017 that he would finish his second term as mayor. "My commitment first and foremost is to San Diego," he said on Twitter.

Last month, Faulconer endorsed the recall effort and launched a campaign exploratory committee, allowing him to begin fundraising.

Voters will have to weigh Faulconer's record, especially during the pandemic's initial surges in 2020, against a widening field of recall candidates -- and Newsom himself.

"Gavin Newsom's biggest opponent in the recall is not another politician. His biggest opponent is the coronavirus," Schnur says. "Faulconer and any other potential candidates need to position themselves as an alternative who can confront this crisis more effectively than Newsom. It's not an easy task, but it's probably a better place for Republican candidates to be starting than any other."