Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Photo by Chris Stone

Former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican with a reputation as a moderate, formally announced a bid for governor of California on Monday, challenging Democrat Gavin Newsom, whose response to the coronavirus pandemic has been criticized by members of both parties.

Faulconer, 54, who was first elected mayor of San Diego in a special election in 2014 and then won a full term in 2016, is one of the few Republican politicians in this deep blue state with statewide name recognition. Newsom, a former mayor of San Francisco and former lieutenant governor, is seeking a second term in the 2022 election in the country’s most populous state.

“On Gavin Newsom’s watch our schools are failing, homelessness is skyrocketing, small businesses are closing and jobs are disappearing,” Faulconer said on his website announcing his candidacy. “His broken promises have become our problems.”

Newsom currently is the subject of a recall effort, which is subject to garnering 1.5 million signatures by March 17 to call a special election. If the recall, which is considered a long-shot, is successful, Faulconer would jump in to the special election, spokesman Matt Shupe told Reuters.

Faulconer’s chances against Newsom are far from certain.

He will have to win the support of independents and Democrats in a state where Republicans make up less than a quarter of registered voters, said Raphael Sonenshein, who heads the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Already, Newsom’s camp is making a point of highlighting Faulconer’s support for former President Donald Trump.

“While Faulconer and other Trump supporters compete in the Republican primary, we’ll stay focused on distributing the vaccine and providing relief and recovery to families and small businesses harmed by the virus,” Newsom spokesman Dan Newman told Reuters.

If the conservative-led effort to recall Newsom is successful, that would present numerous wildcards, including some that could benefit Faulconer, Sonenshein said. But it is likely that conditions in California will improve by the time such a contest is set several months from now — if the effort makes the ballot at all.

In addition, Faulconer’s balancing act between moderate and Trump supporter could be more complicated if more-conservative candidates join what may be a throng of hopefuls seeking to replace Newsom after a recall, Sonenshein said.

In a recall, Californians first vote to recall a politician and then choose their top replacement. In 2003, when voters recalled Democrat Gray Davis, the list of possible replacements included 135 candidates. The most votes were garnered by Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to serve two terms.

Before the Trump years, Faulconer, who was prevented by term limits from seeking another term as San Diego mayor, had a reputation as a moderate Republican in a state where the party had already moved far to the right. He opposed Trump’s candidacy in 2016, but later met with him and in December told the Los Angeles Times that he had voted for Trump in 2020.

Faulconer has hired at least some advisers close to the party’s conservative base and in recent days has bashed Newsom on conservative news outlets including One America News Network.

The recall effort was started before the pandemic shutdowns and includes images on its website calling for an end to health care for illegal immigrants, sanctuary policies, high taxes and gun control.

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