Fueled by resistance to President Donald Trump, the Democratic Party in San Diego County is experiencing a surge in voter registration and scores of progressives are emerging seemingly from the ether to consider running for public office.
Between November 2015 and November 2016, for every new Republican registration, there were three Democratic ones. The margin has increased slightly since Trump’s presidential victory, voter registration data shows.
Democrats also have seen more than a four-fold increase in the number of people interested in running for political office — from school board positions to congressional districts. Some of these hopefuls had never been involved in politics, local Democratic Party officials said.
“What‘s happened is that people have lost their trust, their faith in the government at the national level. It has struck something inside, it has struck a deep cord. They’re coming forward, people we’ve never seen before,” said Jessica Hayes, chairwoman of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
“They’re literally everybody. I am not exaggerating when I say that,” she added. “They’re teenagers to people in their 70s and 80s …”
The Republican Party of San Diego County didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Jason Roe, a campaign consultant who works with Republican candidates including San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the trends are troublesome for conservatives. Republicans have lost single-digit leads in some local districts and now face 10-point disadvantages in voter registration.
“It’s pretty horrifying,” Roe said. “It’s a huge shift.”
Tom Shepard, a political consultant who works almost entirely with Republican candidates, said Democrats have been making steady gains across California, but that the surge is a common cycle for whatever political party is out of power.
“When you feel threatened, there’s a tendency to get more engaged, and that’s clearly happening here,” Shepard said.
Democrats have held a registration advantage in this region since November 2008, but it hasn’t automatically translated to widespread ballot wins for Democratic candidates.
At the end of March, Democrats had a 6.4 percentage point voter-registration advantage over Republicans, up from 2.8 percentage points a year earlier. As of March 31, 36.7 percent of voters registered in San Diego County were Democrats, 30.3 percent were Republicans and 27.9 percent didn’t identify any political party.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign spurred a lot of young adults in San Diego to register to vote, as did efforts by the Democratic club at UC San Diego, said Francine Busby, the local Democratic Party’s previous chairwoman.
But Trump did most of their work for them, she believes. His campaign rhetoric and his administration’s policies have compelled some residents to register for the first time or to re-register after not having voted in years, Busby said.
Many immigrants who had been eligible to become U.S. citizens for years heard Trump’s comments about Latinos and decided that 2016 was finally the time for them to get naturalized, she added.
There isn’t this sort of energy among Republicans, Roe said. Pollsters are asking people about their political activism since the November election, and the level of involvement is disproportionately higher among liberals, he said.
Beyond voter registration, the local Democratic Party is trying to tap into greater interest from potential political candidates.
Busby runs a series of training workshops to prepare new and potential candidates for the rigors of a political campaign, and she said there was a record crowd at her March 18 session. Usually, each workshop attracts 35 to 40 people, particularly when there’s still a year before the next primary.
Last month, about 180 people showed up.
“They are all ages, from all over the county. They’re interested in running at all levels,” Busby said.
Some are targeting school-board seats, others are eyeing City Council positions from San Ysidro to Fallbrook, and a few are aiming to take on Rep. Duncan Hunter, who represents one of the most conservative congressional districts in California.
“… They see he’s not acting in the way they would expect a congressman to act,” Busby said. Hunter is under criminal investigation for using campaign funds for personal expenses.
Shepard said the increased interest in local politics could have significant benefits for Democrats — and bring trouble for Republicans.
Despite lagging in voter registration and state offices, the GOP has a significant hold on local offices. But if Democrats can win more seats on school boards and city councils, it could eventually change the “bench” of seasoned politicians seeking higher offices, he said.
“If one of the impacts of the Trump phenomenon is that Democrats become more engaged in local offices, that could have a profound effect,” he said. “That is a potentially transformational change, if it bears fruit.”
The “if” is recognized as a key word by both political parties.
While Democrats are enjoying an increase in momentum, their local party leaders know it will be of no consequence if those additional members don’t cast ballots in future elections.
“We’ll do everything possible to turn out the vote,” Busby said. “If we don’t knock on any doors and talk to someone, there is a certain percentage that doesn’t turn out.”
The party’s analysis of 2016 voter participation shows that about 67 percent of Democrats will cast a ballot without any contact from a campaign worker. Turnout increases to 75 percent if Democratic activists leave a brochure or door hanger at people’s homes, and the figure rises to about 84 percent if there’s a face-to-face conversation.
Some Democrats running for office said they’re already working on their get-out-the-vote efforts