Bill Whalen

Bill Whalen: The trouble urban centers pose for Republicans

Published: Friday, Apr. 18, 2014 - 12:00 am

The memoirs of her State Department years won’t be out until the second week in June, but here are two things we already know about Hillary Clinton: She’s pretty good at ducking tossed sneakers; should she seek the presidency, it’s going to be a formula similar to what worked twice – and very effectively – for Barack Obama.

About that formula. For all the talk about an America divided left and right, red and blue, coastal and flyover, there’s yet another way to assess presidential politics: populous vs. sparse.

Simply put, the larger the metropolitan area – America’s top 50 cities having populations of 375,000 or more – the more likely a heavy turnout of Obama voters: minorities, millennials, professional women and progressive dreamers. It worked wonders for Obama in terms of the popular vote – the first president since Reagan to twice collect more than 51 percent of the popular vote.

And the Electoral College? Here’s where Republicans have a serious problem going forward. Eleven states in the next two presidential elections will have 14 or more electoral votes. Combined, they’re 279 electoral votes – more than half the national total. Obama won eight of those states in 2012, for a 201-69 advantage. Toss in the five other double-digit states that went Obama’s way and his total rises to 267. Add the mortal lock that is the District of Columbia (or Rhode Island, for that matter) and its 270 electoral votes and game, set and match Democrats.

Thus we have Hillary Clinton not only flirting with a presidential run, but doing so within the same big-city quilt stitched together by the man she hopes to succeed. Earlier this month, it took Clinton to San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco and Las Vegas, where the shoe was hurled – respectively, they’re America’s eighth, 10th, 14th and 31st largest cities. When she next returns to the West in June, it will be for stops in Denver and Colorado Springs – the nation’s 23rd and 41st most populous cities.

To the extent there’s breaking news about Clinton over the course of the next year, it will be if she ever ventures outside the big-city bubble – with the exception of Iowa and New Hampshire. That includes a set of non-metropolitan states that will decide control of the U.S. Senate in 2014: West Virginia, South Dakota, Montana, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska. What those states have in common: not one city with more than 300,000 residents.

And they spell trouble for Democrats not in winning the White House, but in gaining control of Congress. While Obama winning 14 of the 21 states with double-digit electoral votes makes for a formidable national advantage, 17 of the 29 states with fewer than 10 electoral votes went against the Democratic ticket. That more than balanced power in the U.S. Senate – in 2014, it may tip the chamber the GOP’s way.

As for California, there’s a cautionary tale in this for Republicans: The party can’t compete statewide unless it does better in large metropolitan areas – specifically, Los Angeles County, home to about one-fourth of the statewide vote in an off-year election.

Consider these numbers from 2010: Steve Cooley, a former three-term Los Angeles County district attorney and candidate for state attorney general, earned 866,000 votes in his home county. That sounds impressive, but it was 39 percent of the countywide vote in that election. As for the other seven Republicans seeking a state constitutional office in 2010, not a one finished within 190,000 votes of Cooley. Meanwhile, Cooley ended up losing the attorney general’s race by a shade under 75,000 votes statewide. If Cooley had moved just 1.7 percent of the 2.2 million votes in L.A. County from his opponent’s column into his, Kamala Harris would probably be working in the Obama Justice Department these days.

The problem for California Republicans in 2014: The party’s best hopes for a surprise in November, assuming each survives June’s open primary, would face an uphill climb in Los Angeles County in getting to that 42 percent threshold. Pete Peterson, the leading GOP candidate for secretary of state, resides in Santa Monica and works at Pepperdine University. While he’s of L.A. County, Peterson doesn’t have the same name recognition that Cooley enjoyed in 2010.

As for Ashley Swearengin, mayor of Fresno and the frontrunner in the state controller’s race, her November opponent could be former Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Los Angeles native born from the labor movement. Yes, Swearengin could count on California’s fifth-largest city as a foundation. Then again, five of the eight Republicans on the 2010 GOP ticket prevailed in Fresno County, including gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who ran 11.5 percent ahead of her statewide total.

If there were such a thing as a glimmer of hope for urban-mired Republicans, it would be Kevin Faulconer, the recently elected mayor of San Diego. It’s the answer to the trivia question of the largest city in the U.S. with a GOP mayor (only two other of America’s 20th largest cities – Indianapolis and Fort Worth – can say the same).

However, Faulconer’s distinction comes with an asterisk: He won a special election in February in which 252,000 San Diego residents voted. That’s a 215,000-vote dropoff from the November 2012 mayoral election that produced the disgraced Bob Filner.

Should Faulconer succeed in America’s Finest City, perhaps he would graduate to statewide politics as did another former San Diego mayor, Pete Wilson. Until then, California Republicans will have to figure how to fine-tune their message to overcome what’s become a fine mess in California’s population centers.


Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Contact Whalen at whalenoped@gmail.com.

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