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In Year of Trump, Can GOP Mayor Appeal to California Latinos?

The growing chorus of dissent among Republicans over Donald Trump's nomination to be the GOP candidate for president exposes a fracture in the national party that has long been a sticking point for Republicans in the state of California, who have lost control of the state now dominated by Democrats.

But one city, San Diego, is curiously run by a Republican. San Diego marks the largest city in the country run by a Republican mayor, Kevin Faulconer. San Diego, like California, is a majority-minority city, with the majority of the city population coming from a racial or ethnic minority group. Sitting on the border with Mexico, San Diego is about one third Latino.

Image: San Diego Mayor Faulconer shakes hands with Mexico's Secretary of Tourism de la Madrid Cordero during the official opening of a privately funded cross border pedestrian bridge that connects the United States with Tijuana International Airport, in O
San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer shakes hands with Mexico's Secretary of Tourism Enrique de la Madrid Cordero during the official opening of a privately funded cross border pedestrian bridge that connects the United States with Tijuana International Airport, in Otay Mesa, San Diego, California April 7, 2016. MIKE BLAKE / Reuters

With almost half of the states in the country dominated by a Republican legislature and governor and only seven states currently fully run by Democrats, California marks a rare case where the national dialogue over immigrants has relegated the GOP to virtual third-party status. The state leadership has not seen a Republican elected official since 2010, when Arnold Schwarzenegger left the governor's seat.

It may be difficult to conceive of California as a Republican state, but the two presidents the Golden State has sent to the White House were Republicans, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. California has been a state in transition ever since, with the massive wave of immigrants flowing into the state following the 1965 Immigrant and Naturalization Act, which established a new naturalization process that focused on reuniting family members.

It is also difficult to understate how important the demographic shift in the state has been to electoral politics in California, but it is also difficult to take away from the state the lesson of how not to handle immigration issues from the standpoint of a political party.

When California faced a recession after the the fall of the Soviet Union, base closures up and down the coast wreaked havoc on the economy and left Californians vulnerable to opportunistic politicians desperate to blame someone for their misfortune. Immigrants have always made a convenient foil in American politics, and so the growing population of Latino immigrants stood as an effective punching bag for Republicans.

But it didn't take long for the Democrats to use the attacks on immigrants to gain traction with Latinos and moderate whites. Latinos who cut their teeth fighting for fair labor practices through the unions became the vanguard of what is the new state leadership. Across the state, Democrats dominate the major cities, with the two pillars of California politics, Los Angeles and San Francisco, as strongholds of the party.

No surprise that a Donald Trump candidacy would make Republicans in California nervous about agitating the Latino voter base of the Democratic party. Early indicators are frightening as well, with the state seeing twice as many voters registering to vote in February this year than 2012. With all indicators pointing to another tough election cycle for Republicans, Faulconer has been at the forefront of announcing his disdain for Donald Trump.

"I am not endorsing Mr. Trump," Faulconer said through a press release provided to NBC News by his campaign for re-election. "I reject his divisive rhetoric, including that toward women and Latinos. We need to be building bridges and bringing people together. That's how we do things in San Diego. Mr. Trump has not earned my vote."

Faulconer released his first political ad today as well, and as a bilingual speaker, it is notable that his introduction to voters this election cycle is in Spanish.

"Mayor Faulconer believes in including everyone at the table, which is why we are releasing our first ads in Spanish. He is working every day to ensure that each community, including our Spanish speaking community, can succeed," said his campaign manager, Francis Barraza.

The ad, which highlights the diversity of the city and makes a point to display women sitting at the decision table, is a precision strike at the demographic weaknesses from which Donald Trump has caused massive bleeding even among Republicans themselves.

Whether or not Faulconer will become a casualty of the anti-Trump wave remains to be seen, but it is clear that Republicans across the country will need to pay closer attention to San Diego if they are to maintain hold of their teetering legislative majorities across the country.

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