With embattled San Diego Mayor Bob Filner reportedly on his way out, Republicans see a chance to win back the mayor’s office in a special election—but will it come at the cost of a top congressional recruit?
The biggest question with implications for local and national politics is what Republican Carl DeMaio will do: continue his campaign for Congress against freshman Democratic Rep. Scott Peters, or jump into an abbreviated special election for the mayor’s job that he came close to winning last November?
DeMaio’s decision will be the first domino to fall in the special election to replace Filner, who is expected to resign Friday after more than a dozen women began making sexual harassment charges against the sitting mayor last month.
If Filner does step down, an all-party primary would be held within 90 days of his resignation, with a runoff between the top-two vote-getters to follow within another 45 days. City Council President Todd Gloria would take over as interim mayor.
DeMaio: Once a runner up, now the leading Republican
DeMaio, who is openly gay, spent years as a businessman and government reform advocate before he was elected to the city council in 2008. Last year, he finished atop a five-candidate field in the all-party “jungle primary,” but lost to Filner by five points in November.
The possibility of DeMaio jumping to a mayoral special election is something that’s worried GOP strategists ever since it became clear that Mayor Filner’s job might suddenly become available.
Both parties see the district -- which voted just 52% for President Obama in 2012 -- as up for grabs. Polls have shown a close race between DeMaio and Democrat Peters. Last cycle, Peters, himself a former city councilman and port commissioner, defeated longtime GOP Rep. Brian Bilbray by just over two points. And with Democrats needing 17 seats to flip control of the House, they can hardly afford to lose competitive seats.
Republicans believe the presidential election spiked Democratic turnout in the city, and are optimistic about the congressional seat in a midterm year, especially with DeMaio -- a moderate and a strong fundraiser -- as their recruit.
DeMaio’s campaign said Thursday he wouldn't be making any statements until Friday at the earliest, but he has signaled that he may be interested in trying again for the mayoral job. Last week, when asked by a local ABC affiliate whether he was “100 percent focused” on his race for Congress, DeMaio said, ”No, I’m actually focused a lot more on removing Bob Filner from City Hall.”
Several local sources, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said DeMaio has long wanted to be mayor, but Republicans believe -- or at least, they hope -- he’ll remain in the congressional race.
Republicans are doing everything they can to get DeMaio to stick with his race in the 52nd District. Sources told NBC News that DeMaio had already spoken with the National Republican Congressional Committee and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), both working to urge him to stay the course (for which he’s already raised almost $500,000).
If DeMaio were to jump into the mayoral race, the risk is that he could lose again -- being a two-time loser -- would severely damage his political future. National Republicans believe -- and hope -- when he looks at that logic, he’ll see the congressional race as the safer bet.
If DeMaio runs for mayor, he’d likely be the consensus candidate within the GOP. If he doesn't, other top city Republicans are likely to look seriously at the race: City Councilman Kevin Faulconer; County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who’s made several previous runs for mayor; San Diego County Sheriff William Gore; and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who finished fourth in last year’s mayoral primary. Dumanis was the first openly gay D.A. in the U.S.
Some of those Republicans could be backups for the congressional seat, though GOP strategists have stressed that DeMaio is their first choice. Ruben Barrales -- a former aide to President George W. Bush, who is the former CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce -- is mentioned by several Republicans as a top get. The party would certainly want to talk to Dumanis, too. Retired Marine Kirk Jorgensen is already in the race.
The Democratic field: Time for a woman?
Gloria, who’ll be Filner’s temporary replacement, is mentioned as one of several Democrats who could seek the mayor’s office. But he’s not the top name mentioned. Nathan Fletcher, a former Republican assemblyman who ran as an independent in last year’s mayoral primary but finished third, is likely to run. Once considered a rising star in GOP statewide politics, he announced in May he was switching to the Democratic Party.
Some Democrats hope that may give Fletcher crossover appeal with independents and Republicans. He’s been wooing organized labor, which could play an outsize role in the race if they put their money and manpower behind one candidate. But many unions remain skeptical of the former Republican. Gloria could also run, but local sources doubt he’ll go forward with a campaign if Fletcher does. A former aide to Rep. Susan Davis, Gloria has been thought to have his eye on her seat when she retires.
Some Democrats are urging leaders to coalesce behind a female candidate, hoping to minimize some of the damage after Filner’s scandal. The two top names include Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins, who briefly served as acting mayor in 2005 and was the city’s first lesbian mayor, and former state Sen. Christine Kehoe. But both women could face fundraising and name-recognition obstacles in such a short race. Other Democratic women mentioned include Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and former Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, who lost the Democratic nomination in last year’s congressional race to Peters.
With only three months to campaign, a candidate with an established profile -- like Fletcher or DeMaio -- has a big advantage. And all the candidates face the challenge of shaping and selling an optimistic message after this dispiriting summer.
“You have a majority of residents and potentially voters who want to see Filner go, but you don’t really have anybody who’s articulated a vision for the city that will take us from where we are to where we want to go,” said San Diego Democratic consultant Chris Crotty. “It’s going to be difficult distinguishing yourself as a candidate in this race beyond, ‘I don’t like Bob Filner.’”
The mess that Filner leaves behind is something his party may be dealing with for a long time. He was the city’s first elected Democratic mayor in two decades when he defeated Bilbray last fall.
“The Democratic brand in San Diego has been tarnished," Crotty said, "and the very crucial non-partisan vote may be affected by the fact that Filner is a Democrat."