Signs of a Political Purpling?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A long-time reader in North Carolina, Bert Clere, has a great take on the piece Liam Dillon wrote for us on San Diego’s Republican mayor:

I was struck by how poorly Kevin Faulconer would do if he tried to run in a GOP primary in the South. It’s not just the social liberalism; the social liberalism is part of a cultural thing. All politics is cultural, and you appeal to your electorate by having a cultural affinity with them. Faulconer sounds like a perfect cultural fit for San Diego precisely because he went out of his way to show his cultural difference from most Red State Republicans.  

On the opposite side, Louisiana just became the only current state in the Deep South to elect a Democratic governor. Like Faulconer, John Bel Edwards went out of his way to demonstrate his cultural affinity with his region in contrast to his national party. Edwards proudly claimed the mantle of military man and pro-life good ‘ol boy. Yet, as Dillon pointed out of Faulconer, Edwards is much more in tune with his constituents when it comes to economic issues. One of the first things Edwards is doing is to boldly defend the SNAP program in a state where such things are usually considered a liability within the GOP. Yet Edwards wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t feel he had the political capital to do so.   

These two men are most certainly anomalies in the current U.S. political alignment. But what if they are the first signs of a future realignment?

I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. But one thing we do know from the past hundred years is that there is a fluidity to red and blue states. In Louisiana, Edwards was blessed with a GOP opponent, David Vitter, who couldn’t overcome a sex scandal. But as the conservative writer Rod Dreher pointed out, Edwards’ victory also owes much to the dissatisfaction across Louisiana with Bobby Jindal's hardcore trickle-down policies. If social issues recede (and that’s a big if), then there’s no reason why the South wouldn’t become more amenable to electing Democrats with strong education and infrastructure agendas. Similarly, there’s no reason why urban and blue areas wouldn’t become more amenable to Republicans if they didn’t have to throw in their support to the religious right in voting for them.  

While Trump rides high, the red-blue nature of the electorate is going to stay mostly the same. But if Trump implodes and takes the GOP with him, we might begin to see the birth pangs of a more fluid electoral map. Kevin Faulconer and John Bel Edwards are the embodiment of the post-red/blue politics Obama was talking about in his 2004 DNC speech.  

A reader in San Diego, on the other hand, thinks national observers are reading too much into Faulconer’s success:

San Diego isn’t a blue or a red city; we’re relatively moderate and tend to prefer liberal/libertarian social policies along with conservative fiscal policies as the author noted. We’re also a Navy and Marines town, which wasn’t mentioned in the article. Everyone here has more than a few friends or family serving. We don’t fit any neat political categorizations.

After the Filner disaster, having an unobtrusive mayor is more than acceptable. Faulconer is an OK mayor—nothing earth-shaking but also not much to complain about. Very few here want to spend their tax dollars funding the ultra-profitable NFL, so if the Chargers leave, they leave.

For a big city, San Diego still has a small city feel to it. Faulconer is correct; we want our mayor to concentrate on running the city and not comment on national politics. I get the feeling that the author of the article concentrated on his own agenda for the city as the basis for his critique. Let’s face it, you can always find people who disagree and who are willing to be quoted for an article. But in reality, no one here talks about Faulconer, either positively or negatively. He simply never gets mentioned in everyday conversation. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing. I certainly don’t think he can be used as a model for Republican mayoral candidates in other cities.

One more reader, Harvey Marx, makes a distinction:

Republican mayors and serious candidates are most common in cities with a Sun Belt profile, less so in older cities with legacy problems. Aaron Renn, who writes extensively about Indianapolis, has noted that the sprawling, once-Republican city has been trending more and more Democratic as urban decay sets in and wealthy people move further out into the suburbs. San Diego, a fairly new city, seems to fit the bill.

Faulconer is a good start, but I’d like to see Republican mayors engage in Rust Belt cities instead of ranting against them in the suburbs as an object lesson in alleged Democratic failure. Anyone can run an affluent city that has a major government presence and has quadrupled in size since 1950.