BURLINGAME, Calif. — Something happened between the time I cast my first votes for Democrats Jimmy Carter for president and Marion Barry for mayor of Washington, D.C., and four years later when I voted for Ronald Reagan and other Republicans. (And, no, I’m not referring to Barry being arrested for smoking crack cocaine, which took place long afterwards.)
A political movement happened — one that shaped many people’s voting habits for years. My views, decades later, are a far cry from the ones espoused by any of the above-mentioned politicians, but I learned that politicians and parties can actually swing the electorate in their direction by making a case based on the right issues.
Those musty campaigns jump to mind last weekend at the California Republican Party convention. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who recently won the special election in a Democratic-leaning city, was a star attraction. He kicked off the Friday event with a short speech at a reception. A Saturday workshop provided an “anatomy” of his victory. His name came up virtually everywhere.
Throughout the convention, Republican officials focused on rebuilding the mechanics of elections, with Faulconer as Exhibit A. For instance, the San Diego party took over many tasks that candidates are usually stuck doing themselves, such as polling and get-out-the-vote drives among Republicans. “That helped finance-wise, and allowed Kevin to focus his time and energy on non-Republicans,” said San Diego County GOP Chairman Tony Krvaric.
At the “anatomy” class, Krvaric referred to this as “basic blocking and tackling,” and echoed the views of other party officials who said the goal of a party is to elect candidates, not debate policy. Faulconer campaign manager Stephen Puetz, now the mayor’s chief of staff, recalled the time the Faulconer team met with 20 African-American pastors, 19 of whom were Democrats. Their issues were the same as the Republican candidate’s, he said. Their infrastructure had been neglected and they weren’t included in city decision-making. The county party’s effort gave the campaign time to reach out like this.
At a separate event, a group called Trailblazers introduced statewide candidates who fit a similar mold. It recruits “quality” candidates who fit their districts and are trained to meet aggressive fund-raising and organizing goals. Trailblazers isn’t looking for a particular type of candidate (moderate or conservative), but for candidates who can run professional campaigns.
“I want to be the nuts-and-bolts chairman,” noted California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte, during a Friday press briefing. He focuses on the unglamorous side of politics, he said, and not on public policy debates and said his approach is working.
This good news was tempered by reality — i.e., the party probably won’t be competitive for any statewide office this year, and its gubernatorial candidates — Neel Kashkari, whose politics are to the left of most Republicans, and Tim Donnelly, whose politics are to the right of most voters — may drag down candidates in other races. (Neither one was included in an official convention event until the last minute.)
This is where those old elections offer modern lessons. Whatever one thinks of Reagan, he engaged the public in a discussion about the size of government. There was an overriding purpose for his candidacy. Brulte says the candidates that win tend to be the ones most like the communities they run in. That’s true, but effective candidates can prod people to change their thinking, which is something that Faulconer seemed able to do by focusing on grassroots fiscal conservatism.
Mayor’s races, though, are more about fixing potholes and reforming pensions than about philosophical concepts. At some point, the state party needs to be bolder about the core issues its candidates believe in — provided they believe in anything more than just winning.
The assembled legislative candidates at the Trailblazers events spoke vaguely about diversity and opportunity. Kashkari’s ubiquitous campaign signs say, “Jobs & Education. That’s It!” Sure, the GOP can strategically pick off races with smart campaigns, but it’s hard to envision much more than that with messages so small. There was a crowded liberty caucus event at the convention, which suggests some hunger for a bigger approach.
Maybe voters don’t care about candidates’ views on tax rates, gun rights, the coastal commission, government abuses, unfunded pension liabilities, police abuse and prison overcrowding. Or maybe candidates are afraid that if they articulate them, they will alienate voters. Or maybe conventions aren’t the ideal place to discuss them.
Still, as important as nuts-and-bolts campaign issues may be, I doubt any minority party can change the political landscape without inspiring voters on a bold set of ideas.
Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org