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In San Diego, party unity is just another political norm Donald Trump upended in 2016.
Jason Roe hasn’t been bashful with his views on Donald Trump.
The Republican consultant, who engineered Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s emergence as the highest-profile politician in town and made himself the pre-eminent center-right strategist in San Diego, said before the primary that he wouldn’t support Trump, on an episode of our podcast. Just before the Republican National Convention, he told Politico it was a ship that could sink without him on it.
Those candid remarks have been catnip for media, but haven’t endeared him to the people who run the Republican Party in all its state and local iterations across the country.
Party leaders in two states told Roe to tone it down as November approaches, he said. They told him he had two strikes – bad news for someone who makes money running campaigns for Republican candidates.
But with a few weeks’ distance from the convention, Roe said it’s as clear as ever: Trump isn’t changing, and neither is he.
“There are certain norms and expectations for us as consultants, but this is uncharted territory,” Roe said. “People were optimistic that after the convention Trump would normalize, but if it’s possible to be worse, that’s what he did. The people who were sober about him saw this five months ago: This will not change or improve.”
In San Diego, party unity is just another political norm Trump upended in 2016.
While Democrats have not only rallied to support former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but are actively running on a broad version of her platform, just a handful of local Republicans have said they support the party nominee.
If there are others, they aren’t talking.
Even Tony Krvaric, head of San Diego County’s Republican Party, who has been nothing in local politics if not fiercely loyal to the party, would not say he supported Trump to be the next president.
Four years ago, I watched Krvaric fire up a hotel ball room full of volunteers to go knock on doors the weekend before Election Day. The party’s job might have been to win races for mayor and state Senate and water board, but the volunteers were motivated by the top of the ticket. Krvaric played to that fact, reminding them Mitt Romney’s home was in La Jolla, and it’d be a nice treat to say he won his home county.
This year, high-profile officials like Mayor Kevin Faulconer have made pains to separate themselves from Trump. What does that mean for the party this fall?
“We’re the local party which means our focus is the nearly 200 local candidates that will be on the ballot in November,” Krvaric said in an email.
But does the top of the ticket make it harder to win those 200 races?
“There’s no doubt the party is divided in terms of the nominee so there are good Republicans with different views,” Krvaric wrote. “What everyone can agree on are our local candidates – which is the focus of all local party organizations.”
But can Trump count on Krvaric’s personal support?
Three times he simply resent the same message about focusing on local races, and good Republicans holding differing views.
Some of those “good Republicans” who support Trump are doing well in local politics. Reps. Darrell Issa and Duncan Hunter were among the first in D.C. to bless Trump, and state Sen. Joel Anderson, introducing Trump at the state Republican Party’s convention, endorsed the candidate while chastising the consultant class and media that had battled with him. On primary night, after advancing to a November runoff for county supervisor, Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar said she had just voted for Trump, too – and then watched her opponent, Supervisor Dave Roberts, turn it into a focus of his re-election bid in the toss-up coastal district.
And that might be it for local officials supporting Trump.
Other officials have either made a point to say they won’t support Trump, or are doing their best to say nothing at all.
In the end, Trump might not be able to do all that much damage in the short term. There just aren’t many Republicans running for office this fall who need to shed his image.
One of them, Robert Hickey, a deputy district attorney running for city attorney against Mara Elliott, a Democrat, has said since before the primary that he cannot ever support Trump. He hasn’t decided what he’ll do atop his November ballot – he can’t bring himself to vote for Clinton, either, he said – but knows he won’t vote for Trump.
Hickey said Trump ended any chance of getting his vote on the day he declared his candidacy, decrying illegal immigration from Mexico by saying Mexicans who crossed the border were criminals and rapists.
“I work in law enforcement,” Hickey said. “If you work in law enforcement, you know that Mexicans come to this country to work, not to commit crimes. I could never get past that first speech – I hoped it was the end, but it turned out it was just the beginning.”
Hickey will be sharing the ballot with Ray Ellis, who’s running for City Council in the moderate 1st District against Democrat Barbara Bry, who is considered a heavy favorite after nearly winning outright in June.
Ellis, likewise, says he won’t support Trump – but also can’t bring himself to support Clinton, at least not yet.
“We live in a diverse country, and we should celebrate that and we should mean it when we celebrate it,” Ellis said. “I believe in a global economy. I don’t agree with the way he treats people. I think it’s very important to oppose him because frankly I don’t think he represents the values of the Republican Party.”
Many of the voters Ellis is shooting for are also in the 52nd Congressional District, where incumbent Rep. Scott Peters is facing businesswoman Denise Gitsham.
A spokesperson for Gitsham said she wasn’t supporting Trump either.
“While Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, he has not yet earned my vote,” she said in a statement. “He has, however, tapped into a real frustration, which I share, about the corruption and incompetence in Washington.”
Candidates running for office in San Diego – except those in the most conservative districts, like Issa, Hunter and Anderson – have little choice but to run away from Trump.
In fact, local consultants said that’s the lone bright spot in Trump’s rise: He’s already positioned himself as such an atypical candidate, it isn’t a stretch for down-ticket candidates to say they aren’t like him.
“His entire schtick is that he isn’t part of the party,” said local strategist Ryan Clumpner. “That’s the opening that Republicans have: It isn’t a hard sell to say, ‘I’m a Republican, but I can’t stand Trump.’”
But that isn’t a message coming just from those running for office. Councilman Mark Kersey already won re-election; he said he voted for Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich based on his track record and is now considering the Libertarian presidential ticket for the same reason. Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s strategist said she hasn’t endorsed Trump and has no plans to. Councilman Scott Sherman said his vote on Election Day will be a “game-day decision.”
Councilman Chris Cate said he doesn’t know what he’ll do on Election Day, but it won’t include voting for Trump.
“For the last six or 10 years, San Diego has done a good job building our own brand, sheltering us as local Republicans from what happens on the national stage,” Cate said. “But that just isn’t the person I want as our standard bearer, delivering a message to younger voters about what we stand for.”
One concern among consultants is what the association with Trump will do to young people at the beginning of their voting lives. It’s not the first impression they want to make.
“My message to folks outside of California is, we are still trying to dig out of the hole from Proposition 187,” Roe said, referring to the 1994 ballot initiative intended to cut off benefits to undocumented immigrants in the state. “That narrowly affected one group of people. Trump is 187 on steroids, and it transcends demographics. It doesn’t matter where you’re from – he’s an all-inclusive offensive person. I’m not worried about November 2016 – it’s the next 30 years.”
One of those young people is Ashley Muntz, a rising UCSD senior involved in the College Republicans and a soon-to-be intern for Sherman. She supported Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in the primary and tried rallying behind Trump, but said she can’t go through with it.
“We are tarnished by him,” she said.
Even those who aren’t in office and aren’t running for office, like April Boling, a former City Council candidate who is active in conservative politics, serving as a treasurer to most local Republicans’ campaigns and a leader in the coalition opposing a measure to build a new Chargers stadium downtown, said she didn’t have any desire to discuss her feelings on Trump.
“There’s no requirement to share your input on every question asked,” she said. “I’m not going to go there.”