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GOP Hopefuls Need More Than Money To Win San Diego County Supervisor’s Seat

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Courtesy photos and inewsource

Shown clockwise from top left are state Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey and Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar, all Republicans.

For a Republican to beat Democratic Supervisor Dave Roberts next year, political analysts say the challenger will need name recognition, party support and a broadly popular message.

As Republicans contemplate challenging San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts in next year’s election for his 3rd District seat, they know they’ll need a significant amount of money, which inewsource laid out recently.

But to beat the freshman Democrat, his opponents will also need to be able to connect with voters in an area that stretches from La Jolla up to Encinitas and from Escondido down to Tierrasanta. That means they’ll need name recognition, partisan party support and personality.

Roberts is considered vulnerable in the June 2016 election after three former staffers filed claims against the county alleging he misused the power of his office, including asking county employees to do political work on county time and having an inappropriate relationship with his driver. Roberts denies the allegations.

Photo credit: Alison St John

County Supervisor Dave Roberts stands next to his predecessor, Pam Slater-Price, 2012

Escondido Mayor Sam Abed has announced officially that he will run for Roberts’ seat. Other Republicans being mentioned are state Assemblyman Brian Maienschein, San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey and Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar.

Two high-profile political consultants are putting early money on Maienschein, who’s also a former San Diego city councilman.

Tom Shepard, whose firm worked on former 3rd District Supervisor Pam Slater-Price’s 2004 and 2008 re-election campaigns, said assuming that neither Roberts nor anyone else wins outright in June by getting 50 percent of the vote, Maienschein is best positioned to advance to a November runoff.

“He’s got a lot of money in his state legislative account, he’s got good relations with the local Republican Party and he’s popular with voters in the inland portion of the district at least,” Shepard said.

(Shepard recently dropped Roberts as a client.)

Jason Roe, a consultant on Republican Carl DeMaio’s 2012 campaign for San Diego mayor, agreed that Maienschein starts out with the most advantages. In particular, Roe said the assemblyman has a higher name recognition than the other candidates and a major campaign war chest — about $700,000 in available cash at the end of last year.

And that war chest could be significant for another reason: attracting the endorsement of the county Republican Party.

Roe suggested that a candidate’s ability to compete on her or his own financially in a November runoff could be a significant factor in receiving the party’s endorsement.

That’s because the party likely would place a higher priority — and therefore prefer spending its resources — on wins in San Diego City Council and state Assembly races, where gaining GOP seats is critical. Regardless of how the 3rd District race turns out, the next Board of Supervisors will have at least a 4-1 GOP majority.

“For the San Diego center-right donors, that makes him (Maienschein) a cheaper night on the town than some of the other candidates,” said Roe, founding partner of consulting firm Revolvis.

In an emailed statement, San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric wrote that the party would prefer a single candidate in the race.

“It's always ideal to just have one candidate, but sometimes things don't work out that way,” Krvaric said.

Party endorsement key

The Republican Party’s endorsement, which Krvaric said wouldn’t come “until later this fall,” could be key. The reason, as it is usually does, comes down to money.

San Diego County imposes strict limits on direct contributions to candidates. Individuals may only contribute up to $750 per election. Contributions from corporations, labor unions, political action committees and other non-individuals are banned. The one exception is for political parties. Parties may give a candidate up to $25,000 per election.

Additionally, parties can spend an unlimited amount of money on so-called member communications. Those communications can include pamphlets and direct mailers to party members. Political parties and endorsed candidates can coordinate on the contents of these communications. The only restriction is that they be directed at registered members of that party.

Should one of the potential GOP contenders secure the party’s endorsement early on, he or she would have a major advantage over the competition.

Securing the endorsement would allow Maienschein to maximize his sizable Assembly campaign funds.

The laws regulating campaign finance at the state level are less restrictive than those at the county level. As such, Maienschein can transfer only the portion of the funds in his state Assembly account that comply with the county’s rules.

Nearly 85 percent of the money Maienschein raised from his two Assembly campaigns came from non-individuals, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. That’s money he couldn’t transfer to a supervisorial campaign.

However, San Diego County doesn’t restrict contributions to political party committees. And that, said Shepard, could be a blessing for Maienschein.

“If he is the endorsed candidate of the Republican Party, he could transfer all that money into the [GOP] county committee and then they can use it for member communications in support of his campaign and that would be a terrific advantage and that would give him a leg up over everyone else in the race,” said Shepard, president of Tom Shepard & Associates.

In an email, Krvaric, the county GOP chairman, declined to discuss whether the amount of money Maienschein could contribute to the party would factor into the party’s endorsement.

Campaign experience will matter

Both Maienschein and Escondido Mayor Sam Abed, the only declared GOP challenger, are seasoned campaigners. Maienschein served on the San Diego City Council for eight years and waged a losing campaign for city attorney in 2008. Abed served on the Escondido city council for six years before his election as mayor in 2010.

The same can’t be said for San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey.

Before his (unopposed) race for San Diego City Council in 2012, Kersey’s only campaign experience was a losing effort to win a Solana Beach City Council race in 2004.

“That’s his big challenge — the fact that he hasn’t had competitive races, hasn’t been forced to cultivate his own extensive network of campaign donors, hasn’t gone through the rigors of a competitive race,” Shepard said. “I think those are definite disadvantages for him.”

Roe did what little consulting work there was to be done for Kersey in the 2012 race. When asked whether Kersey would be able to keep up in a high profile race that looks to be attracting major talent, Roe didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t think I’ve seen him as engaged or aggressive as I have in the last month or two. I think he’s kind of got the eye of the tiger about this,” Roe said. “If he decides to get in, I think he’s going to be pretty formidable because he’s very motivated.”

A lot can happen between now and June 2016.

Should Roberts resign before the election — something he’s given no hint he is contemplating — the Board of Supervisors would pick an interim replacement. If that happens, Shepard thinks Kersey has the inside track to get the appointment. That, said Shepard, would boost his shot of winning the race.

“If it did [go to an appointment], I think Mark Kersey is a more likely candidate because he’s got a better working relationship with the members of the Board of Supervisors,” Shepard said.

Abed could be too controversial

Sam Abed is a dominant force in Escondido politics. He cruised to re-election in November, taking 60 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

But Roe, who acknowledged he is no fan of Abed’s, described the mayor as “gaffe-prone.” He said Abed also will have problems with some voters because of his support of a failed Escondido ordinance to deter residents from renting homes to immigrants living in the U.S. illegally and for his backing of police checkpoints that critics contend are aimed at catching those in the country illegally.

“I think he’s very aggressive politically in every category,” Roe said. “I would question if his approach is going to sell outside of Escondido.”

Shepard was more blunt. He said:

“Of the candidates who have been mentioned, I think he is the weakest. And to be honest, my assessment would be: If the election were held today and the candidates were Dave Roberts and Sam Abed, I think Dave Roberts would have a good chance of winning simply because Abed is not going to be an acceptable choice for voters in a large part of the district.”

In an emailed statement, John Franklin, a political consultant working for Abed’s campaign, pushed back, alluding to his Lebanese heritage.

“Sam isn’t another pasty white guy that you can dismiss as xenophobic. He sacrificed greatly to live the American dream and his bona fides with the immigrant community are unequalled,” Franklin wrote. “He always has been and always will be a fighter for the rights of legal immigrants and a fighter for the rule of law.”

Franklin went on to note Abed’s lopsided victory last November, saying, “If Sam had been a divisive candidate, would he have earned an overwhelming landslide re-election?”

Brian Adams, a professor of political science at San Diego State University, said a conservative candidate like Abed could benefit from what may be a low-turnout election.

“The general rule is that turnout is lower in primary elections,” Adams said.

That tends to make for a more conservative electorate, as left-leaning constituencies like the young and the poor don’t tend to show up at the polls.

Room for a moderate Republican

If most of the Republicans who turn out to vote are conservative, Maienschein’s substantial war chest could spell some trouble for the candidate. He’s received sizable contributions from labor unions and connected groups in his two runs for state Assembly. Leaving aside police and prison guards unions that regularly favor Republican candidates, he’s also raised more than $31,000 from unions representing electrical workers, health care workers, public employees and others, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

While that figure represents less than 3 percent of Maienschein’s fundraising haul over the past two election cycles, it could be a problem for him.

“I do think that that is always a vulnerability for a Republican candidate in a primary-like situation,” Roe said. “I’ve been involved in enough races on either side of that equation to have seen that play out.”

Shepard said it’s possible that Maienschein’s Republican opponents will use those contributions against him but suggests such attacks would be blunted should he secure the endorsement of the county GOP.

“It’ll be very difficult for someone to use those arguments against the candidate who’s been endorsed by the party,” Shepard said.

He also said that Maienschein could turn support from a Democratic-leaning constituency into a boon, predicting the candidate would portray himself as a bipartisan problem solver who’s been able to get legislation approved in Democratic-controlled Sacramento.

Both Democrat Roberts and his Republican predecessor, Slater-Price, were regarded as centrists within their own parties.

“It clearly is a district that has historically supported a moderate Republican, and I’m going to presume that a moderate Republican in an election-type scenario would have an advantage,” Shepard said.

Roe thinks that leaves Gaspar, the Encinitas mayor, an opening.

“You try to piece together a coalition that gets you a plurality or a majority of votes,” Roe said. “And I think Kristin does that in very unique ways.”

He noted that Gaspar has years of experience in dealing with coastal voters and the issues they care about.

Shepard, pointing to the expense of running a successful districtwide race, is less bullish on Gaspar’s odds.

“I don’t know how extensive a contributor base Kristin Gaspar has coming out of Encinitas, and to me that would be a major consideration in evaluating her viability,” Shepard said. “I’m not saying she couldn’t do it, but that to me would seem to me to be her primary challenge.”

inewsource is a KPBS news partner.

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