Kevin Faulconer after an election victory in 2016. Photo by Chris Stone

Kevin Faulconer is not the guy with the bear. 

You’re thinking of John Cox, the mild-mannered Republican and unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial candidate who spent much of May palling around the state with a 1,000-pound Kodiak named Tag, hoping to siphon off some of the bear’s starpower in his effort to unseat Gov. Gavin Newsom in the all-but-certain recall election that could be as soon as September.  

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Faulconer is also not the Kardashian-adjacent, Olympian-turned-reality TV star whose campaign highlights include gabbing with Sean Hannity, selling merch and claiming, despite documented evidence, that she didn’t vote in the last election. That, of course, would be Caitlyn Jenner.

Nor is he the get-rich-quick YouTube star who insists he is “not a stalker” (that’s a different Kevin — Kevin “Meet Kevin” Paffrath). Nor the pink Corvette-driving 1970s billboard model (Angelyne). Nor the porn star (Mary Carey). 

No, Faulconer is the other one. 

A Republican former mayor of San Diego, he governed that once Republican but now reliably blue coastal city as a pro-immigrant, climate-change-believing, bilingual urbanist. He touts endorsements from the traditional quarters of state GOP leadership.

And he really wants you to take the recall election seriously.

So far, Faulconer has tried to make waves in a way that almost seems quaint in 2021: by releasing policy proposals.  

Last month, his campaign garnered some national media buzz when he announced a plan to nix state income taxes on individuals making less than $50,000 and joint filers earning as much as $100,000. 

If you missed that announcement, that’s probably because he rolled it out the same week that Newsom was on his statewide budget tour grabbing headlines with various plans to goose the state’s economy, including a proposal to send more cash directly to lower-income Californians.  

The next week, Faulconer rolled out another plan, this one to exempt military retirement income from state income taxes. That, too, got a little bit of play on Fox News, though nothing to rival the public attention showered on Jenner the human or Tag the bear. 

Tag, a Kodiak bear, nuzzles gubernatorial candidate John Cox before a press conference.
Tag, a Kodiak bear, nuzzles gubernatorial candidate John Cox before a press conference. Photo by Chris Stone

No one should be surprised that the 2021 California recall is, so far, running high on spectacle. The electoral ousting of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 was also a bonanza of oddball candidates and attention-grabbing stunts.

Even so, Faulconer insists he’s “getting significant traction” with his policy proposals, arguing that — never mind the sensational media coverage — earnest conversations about policy are what many voters crave.

He notes his track record pushing for more development to boost San Diego’s housing supply, opening up shelters and banning people from sleeping on the sidewalks. He points to San Diego’s 2020 budget, which increased funding to the police amid calls from the left to defund the department. He references his biography as evidence of his commitment to good, nonpartisan governance: His father was assistant city manager of Oxnard, his mother a city college professor and both were Democrats.

Unlike Cox and Jenner, he points to his experience governing: He served on San Diego’s city council for 12 years before running for mayor. And he  highlights his ability to win over voters outside his party: In 2014, he won the mayor’s race by 6 percentage points and in 2016, he was easily reelected with 57% of the vote. 

“This election calls for a serious candidate with serious policy proposals,” he said in an interview. 

“Serious” is but one way to describe Faulconer’s earnest, pragmatic approach to politics. There’s also “calm,” “mild-mannered,” “genial,” “cautious” and “not the loudest guy in the room.” This is the man, after all, whose 2013 bid for mayor featured the slogan: “There’s no Democrat or Republican way to fill a pothole.” 

Thus the other adjective that’s sometimes used to describe the former mayor: “boring.”

“His advantage is that he’s a boring guy who at least has an agenda,” said Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College and a longtime watcher of local politics. “Whereas Cox is a boring guy with a bear.”

After months of lockdowns, political tumult and economic calamity, boring could be just what California voters want. Or not. Even some of Faulconer’s allies still aren’t sure he’s wise to have jumped into the recall race.

“Kevin has the ability to break out as the sober responsible person who’s not using gimmicks, who is substantive,” said Jason Cabel Roe, Faulconer’s longtime political advisor in San Diego politics who has since moved to Michigan, where he serves as the state GOP’s executive director. 

Should his recall campaign prove to be a bust, Faulconer plans to run for governor during the next regularly scheduled election in 2022. But, Roe said: “The whole circus of the recall diminishes everyone that’s involved.”

The ‘Good Luck Kid’

There’s an inevitable logic to Faulconer’s campaign. California political consultants have been predicting it for years. 

As the former mayor of California’s second largest city, he is one of the few Republicans who comes close to resembling a rising star. 

In theory, he’s also the kind of politician who could appeal to voters outside his own party. He supports immigration reform, believes in the science of climate change, speaks Spanish and — until voting for him in the 2020 election — distanced himself from the nativist politics and incendiary personage of Donald Trump. 

In 2019, New Way California, a cadre of the California GOP’s few remaining centrists, held a summit a few blocks from the state Capitol. Faulconer, one of the headline speakers, encouraged California’s GOP to “not be a carbon copy” of the national party remade in Trump’s image.

In a state where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans nearly two-to-one and where a Republican hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006, Faulconer’s centrist cred makes him an obvious choice for strategically minded Republicans. 

A Faulconer campaign memo, circulated to reporters earlier this year, said as much. 

Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at the November 2019 summit of border-city mayors.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer speaks at the November 2019 summit of border-city mayors. Courtesy of the mayor’s office

The “secret” to Faulconer’s success was that he is not “perceived as far-right by Democrats and Independents,” he is running on a “fiscal-conservative message, promising to be a barrier to tax-and-spend” Democratic lawmakers and he is “libertarian on social issues,” the memo read.

“He wasn’t a ‘build the wall’ guy, so I think he takes a lot of the kind of lazy hits that the Democrats have used for years off the table,” said Roe.

In a typical election, that relative moderation could very well hurt a candidate as much as it might help. It’s a perennial problem that statewide Republicans face: To win a spot in the general election, candidates often have to lock up the support of the party’s Trump-supporting, conservative diehards. But doing so can disqualify a candidate with many of the Democratic voters a candidate needs to win statewide.

This year could be different. That’s because of the weird way that California holds its recall elections — nixing a two-step primary process and simply handing the governorship to the candidate who gets the most votes in the first round, if a majority of voters decide to kick out Newsom. That could give a candidate like Faulconer the rare opportunity to run a consistent up-the-middle campaign.

“You don’t have to do these two stages of running to the right and then wriggling back to the center,” said UC San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser. The recall hands candidates a “get out of polarization free card.”

Faulconer has played that card before. In his first city council race and in his two successful mayoral runs, he repeatedly benefited from Democratic scandal and a fragmented left-of-center vote, and ran less on his partisan brand and more on pledges to compromise and adopt “common sense” solutions.

The recall election could be “another one of these perfect storms that has marked his career,” said Luna. “He’s either the ‘accidental candidate’ or the ‘good luck kid’ and maybe that will be enough to take him into Sacramento.” 

The most recent polls don’t have any perfect storms in the forecast. Last month, a survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 57% of likely voters did not support ousting Newsom. The financial figures aren’t much more encouraging. So far, the committee fighting the recall has outraised the pro-recall committees more than three-fold, according to a CalMatters tracker. 

But if a majority of voters turn on Newsom — and that’s a big if — Faulconer could be next in line. Though Cox has pulled $7.7 million into his 2021 and 2022 campaign committees, most of that has come from his own wallet. With $2.4 million, Faulconer has dramatically outraised the rest of the competition, including Jenner and former member of Congress Doug Ose. 

Another statewide poll from May, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, asked voters if they were inclined to support any of the four highest profile Republicans running to replace Newsom so far. The good news for Faulconer is that he was neck-and-neck with Cox for first place.

The bad news: First place was still only 22% of voters (Jenner came last with 6%). 

A Late Embrace of Trump

Some of Faulconer’s critics say it’s too late for him to portray himself as the bipartisan problem-solver. 

In recent weeks, Faulconer has been making the rounds of right-wing media to shore up his bonafides with conservative voters in California and conservative donors everywhere. In late May, Faulconer was on Ruthless, the podcast co-hosted by U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff, where he bemoaned a state government “captive to the far-left.” A week later he spoke to conservative pundit and YouTuber Ben Shapiro.

“The media have been basically ignoring your candidacy…they are focused mainly on attempting to downplay the recall itself by focusing in on candidates who are, frankly, I think, patently unserious,” Shapiro said during the interview.

“I think we’re always going to have to deal with that kind of bias,” Faulconer responded. But “we are a serious campaign with serious plans.”

Ben Carson and Kevin Faulconer
HUD Secretary Ben Carson and Mayor Kevin Faulconer visited the Stella and Bluewater affordable housing complexes, which were fast-tracked by the city. Photo via Twitter @HUDgov.

What’s likely to be a bigger liability for Faulconer is his apparent warming to the former president whom California’s voters rejected last November by nearly 30 percentage points. 

After the national GOP’s nomination of Trump in 2016, Faulconer, having just won his own re-election as mayor, told a reporter that he “could never vote for Trump” and found his “divisive rhetoric” to be “unacceptable.”

Four years later, Faulconer said he changed his mind, noting that Trump was “going to be best for our economy and to keep folks employed.” He said he did not revise that opinion after the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and Trump’s subsequent second impeachment. “I still feel like from an economic standpoint, there was a very clear difference in the presidential race,” Faulconer said.

Mike Madrid, a longtime political consultant who has been one of the former president’s sharpest critics within the Republican party, called Faulconer’s belated embrace of Trump a “huge tactical blunder.”

“I think he will personally regret it because that’s not who he is,” said Madrid. “Though to give the guy some grace, he’s kind of damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. 

“That’s the conundrum of Republicans who want to govern.”

Faulconer, who has spent his entire political career in increasingly Democratic San Diego successfully resisting such pigeonholing, said he is confident state voters are willing to put aside their loyalties to one party or another. 

“I think people are less concerned whether you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to your name,” he told CalMatters. “This campaign is a referendum on Gavin Newsom’s failures, and that’s what voters are focused on.”

The governor and his electoral defenders are hoping instead for a referendum on partisan identity. Hence the name of the political action committee that has so far raked in nearly $15 million to back the governor: “Stop the Republican Recall.” 

That’s a good bet, said Madrid.

“With the exception of the Schwarzenegger years, the trend line for the Republican vote has been remarkably consistent,” he said. “Gavin (Newsom) just has to partisan-ize it.”

Even the most serious of Republican candidates will have a hard time overcoming that.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.