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San Diego: This is Why You Have Two Democrats on Your Ballots

Author: JC Polk
Created: 22 September, 2020
Updated: 14 August, 2022
4 min read

Some San Diegans are asking why there aren’t Republican candidates in the citywide campaigns for city attorney, mayor, and City Council. The quick answer is that local elections have always been nonpartisan, meaning that the top two vote getters advance to November regardless of party affiliation. In fact, decades ago, these races were truly nonpartisan. Political parties had little or no role.

Today, the political party involvement is significant despite the official nonpartisan status of the election system. Political parties enjoy special rules that allow large, financial contributions from mostly any source to be funneled to the parties. These corporate and union contributions give endorsed candidates an enormous financial advantage over candidates who are not endorsed by a party because individuals can only donate up to $1,500 per person.

Large contributors can also contribute to independent expenditure committees formed by individuals, corporations or labor unions. Political parties and labor unions also enjoy the additional advantage of special postal rates for mailings to members of their party, which makes each dollar go much further.

These financial advantages have generally meant that, despite the “nonpartisan” nature of the system, November elections have routinely seen a Republican and a Democrat face each other in the general election runoff. This year, the city attorney race saw no Republican file. The race of mayor was a different story. Assemblymember Todd Gloria, who has been angling to run for the office for almost two years, won the Democratic Party endorsement. Councilmember Scott Sherman entered late, but just in time to grab the Republican endorsement.

This led political observers to quickly write-off Democratic Councilmember Barbara Bry who had surprised the local establishment by giving up an easy run for re-election to the San Diego City Council for a run for mayor. Bry had neither name identification or political party support. This put her campaign at both a financial disadvantage, as well as, a communications disadvantage. As things turned out, Bry edged Sherman for the Number Two spot on the primary ballot. As a result, voters now have two Democrats fighting it out in the runoff.

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There is another notable Democrat vs. Democrat race in San Diego this year. Councilmember Georgette Gomez faces Sarah Jacobs in an expensive Congressional fight pitting the AOC-endorsed Gomez against the granddaughter of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs. Unlike local city and county races, Congressional seats are historically partisan affairs. However, California voters moved to nonpartisan open primaries in 2010 by approving Proposition 14, authored by the Independent Voter Project.

The reform was designed to address exactly the kind of district in which the two Democrats are currently contesting. Had a Republican made it into the top two in this district, he or she would have had no possibility of competing in the overwhelming Democratic district. Moving to the top two format increased competition and assured that elections would be decided in the General Election when the most people vote.

The political parties still carry enormous clout simply because they enjoy so many special financial advantages. However, in the years since Proposition 14 was passed, more than 60% of the candidates failing to land party endorsements have defeated same party opponents who got their party’s endorsement. Most of these races saw the non-endorsed Democratic candidates successfully consolidate votes from independents and Republicans to make up for close deficits among Democratic voters.

The San Diego Mayor’s race presents an even bigger challenge for Bry. Not only does she not have the party endorsement, Gloria is supported by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, developers, hoteliers and large corporate interests who have poured money into both independent expenditure committees and the Democratic Party. MEA, the union representing city employees, has contributed $125,000 to the Democratic Party earmarked for Gloria. Much of this support comes out of connections made in Sacramento where Gloria has served in the state Legislature for the past four years.

Bry has demonstrated remarkable fundraising prowess for a first-term councilmember. Her history in the local high-tech industry has given her access to a fundraising base that has not typically participated in city politics. She has significantly outperformed Gloria in direct contributions from individuals subject to the per person limits. Bry also has her share of business and developer supporters contributing to independent expenditure committees supporting her candidacy. But Gloria has outpaced Bry in the big donor independent expenditures by four to one.

Gloria outpolled Bry by almost 20 points in the primary. Conventional wisdom and the local lobbying crowd still predict Gloria as the November winner. It is not the sure bet it would have been if Republican Scott Sherman had made it into the runoff because the simple match of voter registration in the city of San Diego has shifted dramatically against Republicans over the past few years.

That’s why there are two Democrats facing each other in some San Diego races. And that’s why these races may be a lot more competitive than expected.