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Fletcher’s Shun Of GOP: Does Party Matter In SD Race?

— It’s likely been a heady few days for Nathan Fletcher. The Assemblyman and former Marine announced last week he was leaving the Republican Party and striking out as an independent candidate in his bid for mayor.

The decision by San Diego mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher to leave the Republican Party and run as an independent has garnered national attention. But in a race that is supposed to be non-partisan, does the move even matter?

It was a decision met with scorn by some, who pointed out Fletcher ditched his party only after the local chapter declined to endorse him, a nod Fletcher insists he didn’t expect to get.

But others have praised the move as a bold decision that highlights just how partisan politics have become. Fletcher said there’s no room for compromise in an increasingly conservative GOP. Columns in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times were largely supportive of Fletcher’s move, even saying he might be a pioneer of independence. But Mesa College political science professor Carl Luna said it might be a bit early to use Fletcher as a political barometer.

“If he wins the mayor’s race or at least gets into the fall run-off as an independent that’s going to set up some national vibrations. That’s going to be a sign that people aren’t happy with the two parties,” Luna said. “If he doesn’t, he goes that direction of the losers that you don’t hear much from in the future.”

But does his switch matter at all in race that is technically nonpartisan? When voters head to the polls, California law dictates they won’t see a party affiliation next to the candidates’ names. Former City Councilwoman Donna Frye, a Democrat, made her own national headlines with her 2005 write-in campaign for mayor. She said everyone knows the nonpartisan label is a misnomer, including the voters.

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“I will tell you, when you go knocking on doors, one of the first things people will ask you is, are you a Democrat or a Republican? And I have had doors slammed, luckily not too many, when you answer that question,” she said.

Frye has endorsed Democratic Congressman Bob Filner for mayor but she said Fletcher’s move has injected some excitement into the race.

“That raised the enthusiasm level, I believe, and got people talking about things that had not been part of this particular campaign, and now are, a discussion about the role of party politics,” she said. “Even though you’re talking about a non-partisan race, allegedly. We all know that’s not true.”

While Fletcher may have shaken up the race with his decision, it’s not clear what impact it’ll have on election day. UC San Diego political scientist Vladimir Kogan said the voters who turn out for primaries tend to be hardcore party supporters, and also tend to be Republicans. He said those who may be swayed don’t generally turn out, and even high profile newspaper columns won’t change that.

“The kind of voters that would be most affected by this are precisely the kinds of voters that don’t read the New York Times and read David Brooks,” he said. “If you look at polls, the people who say they’re independent are primarily people who don’t care about politics, they don’t follow politics, they don’t watch the news about politics. And they’re independent precisely because they don’t care. And reaching those voters is very, very hard.”

But Fletcher's chief strategist Tom Shepard said experience has shown him San Diego voters view the mayor's office as a nonpartisan position. He also said the makeup of voters in primary elections might change under California's new open primary system.

Still, Kogan said Fletcher could face a disadvantage when it comes to money because he won’t have access to party funds like candidates endorsed by Republicans or Democrats. But he said so far Fletcher has been successful in raising money, and he has a lot of it.

“I think that is going to be much more important than whether he’s a Democrat or Republican, you know how he spends his money and what impact that has,” Kogan said.

Fletcher’s campaign said he’s raised more than $50,000 and received donations from nearly every state in the days since he announced he was leaving the GOP. But he still has a long way to go. Polls throughout the campaign have shown Fletcher at the back of the pack with Republican District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis while Republican City Councilman DeMaio and Filner held the number one and two spots. Whether Fletcher’s move toward independence will help him or hurt him remains to be seen in this non-partisan race.

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