Faulconer ponders future after drubbing in California recall

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Kevin Faulconer said his failed campaign to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom was only his first round and that he would discuss next steps with family and supporters, but his drubbing in the recall contest casts serious doubt on the appeal of a moderate Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.

The former San Diego mayor was among 46 candidates seeking to replace Newsom if a majority of voters opted to retire the Democratic governor a year before his term was up. Voters overwhelmingly backed Newsom while incomplete results show Faulconer getting only about 9% support.

Conservative Republican talk radio host Larry Elder was the runaway leader among potential replacements with nearly 50%. Faulconer even finished far back of Elder in San Diego County.

Elder “served as a life preserver” for Newsom because he gave the governor a target and shifted attention from his own performance, said Ron Nehring, former chairman of the California Republican Party and a Faulconer supporter. Without naming Elder, Faulconer, 54, said as much to reporters Tuesday night, flanked by his wife, Katherine, and about 20 supporters on a short, somber night at his campaign headquarters.

“I believe it is incredibly obvious that this recall showed that if you keep the focus on Gavin Newsom, he can be beat, but what we clearly saw in this election that the focus of this election turned into national politics and personalities,” said Faulconer, whose prescriptions for homelessness, housing affordability, wildfire prevention and drought management never gained traction.

Despite having difficulty increasing his name recognition beyond his home turf, Faulconer had said prior to Tuesday that he was would run for governor in 2022 regardless of what happened in the recall. But those plans may be dashed by the twin realities that Newsom is in a stronger position to win a second term next year and Faulconer will have monumental challenges raising money off such a poor performance.

There are still millions of mail-in votes left to count and Brian Adams, a political science professor at San Diego State University, said Faulconer needs to finish with at least double-digit support to have any shot at being taken seriously.

“His big claim that he made to Republicans prior to the recall was, ‘Yes, I may be more moderate than you want but I’m electable,’” Adams said. “This recall has taken his main argument and proven it false.”

Faulconer rose to prominence in California’s Democratic-leaning, second-largest city by seizing on moments of turmoil, portraying himself as a bridge-builder who works across party lines and a steady, if somewhat dull, hand at the wheel.

The self-described vanilla candidate lost his first bid for City Council in 2004 but beat labor organizer Lorena Gonzalez, now a state assemblywoman and one of California’s most prominent Democrats, in a special election the following year after a jury convicted the sitting councilman of corruption charges that a judge later overturned.

Three of nine council members had been charged with corruption in federal court and the Republican mayor, Dick Murphy, resigned in disgrace, mired in crisis over the city’s underfunded pension system.

Faulconer, a former public relations executive and student body president at San Diego State University, handily won a special election for mayor in 2014 when scandal struck again. Bob Filner, the city’s first Democratic mayor in 20 years, resigned amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations that left party leaders shell-shocked.

Faulconer coasted to a second term in 2016, even as San Diego voters favored Democrat Hillary Clinton by 38 percentage points over Republican Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race. San Diego’s status as the largest U.S. city with a Republican mayor in a state where Democrats held all statewide elected offices fueled his prospects for governor.

In mayoral campaigns, Faulconer enjoyed solid backing from Republicans, which clearly eluded him in his first run for statewide office. He found himself in awkward spots, saying he voted for Trump in 2020 but not in 2016 and demanding border security after years fashioning himself as a friend of Mexico and champion of cross-border trade.

John Nienstedt, Faulconer’s pollster in his successful campaigns for City Council and mayor, said Faulconer felt outmaneuvered by last-minute labor spending in his failed bid for City Council in 2004 and vowed that “he would never take a knife to a gunfight.”

Despite that pragmatic bent, that appears to be exactly what happened this year after Elder entered the race in July. The reality that he was soundly rejected by voters despite a significantly longer campaign than Elder has Faulconer reevaluating his next political move.

“As for what’s next for myself,’' Faulconer said Tuesday night, “I’m going to take the time to talk not only to my family but my supporters and figure out the best steps here in the coming weeks to continue to be a fighter, to continue to serve our great state because California’s worth fighting for, don’t you think?”