Yes, Republicans Can Win in Cities. Here's How.
To hear cable news pundits tell it, the 2018 midterm elections are all about who wins over female voters living in the suburbs, and those famed “Never Hillary”-ites living everywhere. But while that’s true when looking at the congressional and Senate maps, the fact is, the Republican Party currently has a major opportunity at hand. It’s an opportunity that it may just be missing—the electoral equivalent of a delicious, but weird-looking, weird-sounding side dish it’s skipping over while it keeps going back for the tried-and-tested meat and potatoes.
The opportunity is America’s cities.
The general perception is that if you live in a big city, you’re a liberal. And that’s probably true in most cities. But across America, city dwellers—even very liberal ones—have shown an inclination to at least weigh electing Republicans. They’ve felt this way because Democrats have gone so badly off-course in so many places. Call it a redux of the Rudy Giuliani phenomenon: When things get David Dinkins-level bad, even self-described liberals are willing to take a look at the alternative. And sometimes, the alternatives look pretty good—even if they have an “R” after their name and the electorate is more “D” than not.
San Diego, California isn’t as liberal as New York City was when Rudy ran and won. But it’s hardly on an ideological par with Alabama, South Dakota, Oklahoma or Utah, either. And yet, it has a Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer, who won his first race with 54.5 percent and his re-election with 58.2 percent. Supporters talk up his commitment to transparency, something that matters greatly because of a major lack of interest on the part of Faulconer’s predecessor, Bob Filner, in exactly that. While Filner was forced to resign in the wake of a massive sexual harassment (and then some) scandal, a real problem under his tenure was his administration’s unwillingness to deal with a glut of Public Records Act requests.
Faulconer also was endorsed by former City Attorney and progressive Democrat Mike Aguirre—who had actually run for mayor himself but placed fourth—because of his belief in Faulconer’s integrity and Faulconer’s refusal to join San Diego’s retirement system as a councilmember. Aguirre evidently considered that an act of independence at a time when Faulconer would have to make difficult decisions regarding public employee compensation and pensions.
Faulconer campaigned on ensuring that San Diego would not replicate “financial mistakes” that he says came close to bankrupting the city. Good fiscal stewardship and transparency were top issues in his election, and he spoke to them. Evidently, the voters’ assessment was that his Democratic opponent did not.
This has happened elsewhere too. In Jacksonville, Florida, Republican Lenny Curry sits in the mayor’s office after having defeated a Democratic incumbent, Alvin Brown. Jacksonville is more Republican than San Diego and a bevy of other American cities. Nonetheless, the electoral formula for Curry appeared to be similar to what it was for Faulconer: Address the city’s real crises. In Jacksonville’s case, these included—again—pension problems and a lack of transparency. The Brown budget that reportedly persuaded Curry to look at the race had “multimillion-dollar gaps the council would have to fill” while “the pension problem was festering.” Curry ended up beating Brown by focusing on these very real, honest-to-God local issues. He went on to institute reforms of city pensions, which voters approved by more than 65 percent of the vote.
In liberal San Francisco, there are rumblings that Republicans could end up making inroads there, too, with the New York Times reporting in June that some non-Republicans were starting to take a look at the GOP over concerns about “a large homeless population, record housing costs and a high rate of property crime.” Two months later—well into general election season—political insiders in the city still say that Democratic voters they know are willing to entertain voting for a Republican if it will get city government to focus on these issues as well as drug abuse and the mess of hypodermic needles on the streets.
And yet, just a couple of weeks ago, the San Francisco City Council voted to ban plastic straws and coffee stirrers. And it looks like the bans will keep coming. Supervisor Katy Tang, the author of the anti-straw legislation, says she “wanted to start with legislation to change containers like coffee cups which we use every single day, but wanted to then start a bit smaller for now and then move on the other items in the future.” Homelessness seems to be less on her radar than it is for the people she represents.
Previously, the city moved to ban not just sales of menthol cigarettes, but also flavorings used in e-cigarettes and other, non-cigarette tobacco products. Voters subsequently approved that ban, probably because its most vigorous opponent was a big tobacco company.
But while they may have supported the ban, it’s hard to imagine that voters felt it was a major priority. After all, as the New York Times has also noted, videos of syringes littering “downtown have gone viral,” the city’s hotels are begging the mayor to fix the homelessness problem, the local travel association says dipping tourist flows are due to the lack of appeal of tent cities, and “new development is stalling.”
These are the big issues and as such, conditions certainly appear ripe for the right kind of Republican to step up and address them.
And that might not be true just in San Francisco. Chicago certainly appears to be descending into a fresh version of hell, with 66 people shot, 12 of them fatally, just last weekend. The city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, won his race as a candidate not of the fabled Chicago machine. A lot of Chicago voters right now have got to be wondering whether just electing an outsider was enough. There is, at least, a potential market for a Giuliani-esque figure to step up and challenge the city’s Democrats (though the Social Democrats of America option may be more likely to prevail).
Right now, 2018 looks more likely than not to be a bad year for Republicans. Assuming it is, the GOP will need to start thinking soon about how it rebuilds. Looking to cities, and running candidates focused on what local voters really care about would be a good way to do it.
There are ripple effects to doing just that. Elevating Republican mayors who have successfully done that to governorships, from which they may then in future be able to run for President, looks like a good way of keeping bench development ongoing and functional for the Republican Party.
Americans are pretty angry right now about institutions having failed them over and over for decades. Getting people elected who are willing to take on things like pension crises seems like a good way of injecting more courage and competence into the party. And goodness knows, if you want to win at the ballot box, having a party brand associated with both of those things tends to work very well. I’d argue that it’s definitely more likely to work nationwide than having a GOP that looks like it’s full of Trump-conformists, or clones of gutless, pablum-spewing congressional Republicans.