Bill Whalen

Kevin Faulconer could be the state GOP’s best hope for 2018

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks to supporters at an election night rally in February 2014.
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks to supporters at an election night rally in February 2014. Associated Press file

Largely overlooked amidst last week’s news of a nuclear framework with Iran and California’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions was word of Republicans’ share of this state’s registered voters falling below 28 percent.

To put that in perspective, there’s almost as high a percentage of registered Democrats in ultra-conservative Utah as there are Republicans in the Golden State.

Or try this: California’s Republican existence is little different from Delaware, Maine and Maryland – all states in which GOP registration is between 25 percent and 30 percent. There’s one key difference – Maine and Maryland both elected Republican governors last fall.

Reversing this slide and making Republicans relevant in statewide elections isn’t a $64,000 question. It’s more like a $64 million mystery – i.e., where to find a 1-percenter with that much money burning a hole in their pocket, plus a masochistic personality that lends itself to political campaigning.

Republicans are desperately seeking a challenger who could put a scare into Attorney General Kamala Harris’ plans to become California’s next U.S. senator in 2016, or could keep Democrats from replacing Gov. Jerry Brown and (possibly) Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018.

The GOP is also looking for someone to bankroll reform initiatives that can survive the slings and arrows from the California Teachers Association and public employee unions.

At present, there are four gentlemen in California – only one a Republican – active in policy debates and capable of such high-stakes poker. Hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer – he of oil taxes and climate change – is a Democrat. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, who wants to divide California into six new states, used to be a Republican but is now an independent. Then there’s Nicolas Berggruen, chairman of reform-minded Think Long California, who has been mostly missing from the conversation.

The lone Republican is Charles Munger Jr., who spends his dollars on political reform (nonpartisan redistricting) and has no apparent appetite for public office.

So where does that leave things? Looking down the road to 2018, the most attractive statewide GOP candidate may be San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the only Republican leading any of America’s 10 largest cities. Faulconer is an optimist and a pragmatist. But before he can run statewide, he has to find a way to earn re-election in a city where “decline to state” voters now outnumber registered Republicans and where President Barack Obama won by 25 percentage points in 2012.

Fans of do-good, bipartisan measures also should be concerned by the absence of the GOP’s $64 million mystery man.

Let’s flash forward a few years to a big ballot measure that promises to improve California’s schools. The champion on the Democratic side? A Sacramento friend who’s smart about these matters nominates Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman. Schmidt’s Republican sidekick could be Condoleezza Rice, at the moment in charge of Jeb Bush’s education foundation. She brings a big name to the conversation, but not the same wealth as Schmidt.

The lesson here for California Republicans is that there’s only so much string on the spool when it comes to finding candidates of wealth. Bill Simon, a wealthy businessman, was the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in 2002. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and Meg Whitman in 2010.

Neel Kashkari, a well-to-do banker, was the top Republican vote-getter in 2014’s open primary. All were first-time candidates when they first sought the highest office in California; all brought considerable wealth to their quests – Whitman ($144 million spent) more so than Kashkari ($3.1 million).

Perhaps the trend continues in 2018 and an individual of wealth comes to the state GOP’s rescue. If not, the party better start looking for a successful incumbent. Perhaps it’s time the falcon heard the Faulconer.

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

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