By Garvin Walsh
Following the June 7 California primary election, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear (D) is now in a head-to-head contest with political newcomer Matt Gunderson (R).
That race, the November election to replace termed-out State Senator Pat Bates (R), pits her, a sitting office holder and winner in four previous elections in Encinitas, against former businessman Gunderson, a resident of Orange County.
As a result of the decennial redistricting, the Senate district straddling Orange and San Diego Counties has been substantially reconfigured and re-numbered (formerly District 36, now 38).
What was a balanced district geographically is now 70% situated in San Diego, giving Blakespear a sizable home-turf advantage.
The partisan mix has also tilted. In 2020 Republicans held a 2-point registration advantage. Now, Democrats are ahead by 5.5 points. That swing, coupled with the geographic shift away from Orange County, might make Blakespear the favorite.
However, the registration advantage favoring Democrats is fully offset by right-leaning Libertarian and American Independent voters.
On the left, the Green and Peace and Freedom parties add up to only 0.7%. It’s fair to say, if voter registrations are a guide, it’s going to be a close race, likely the closest of Blakespear’s political career.
As the campaign unfolds, Gunderson may have a tactical advantage. His record as a successful entrepreneur could be difficult to criticize.
But the mayor’s record provides a target-rich opportunity. Her tenure in Encinitas and as Chair of SANDAG has been marked by controversy and scandal.
More meaningfully, as mayor and state Senate candidate, Blakespear has positioned herself as an ally of the progressives who dominate Democrat Party politics in San Diego and Sacramento.
Blakespear has enthusiastically embraced the progressive menu: coastal density, opposition to local control of development, mass transit, renewable energy, anti-gun, pro-DEI, big-spending, coercive governance.
Under her leadership, SANDAG has attempted to reverse-engineer San Diego County into an immobile, net-zero utopia, hijacking highway taxes for mass transit subsidies, reinforced by a proposed vehicle miles tax.
In Encinitas, her critics have accused her of lacking transparency, pursuing an ideological agenda, and exercising the whip hand to squelch dissent and get what she wants.
As a political practitioner, Blakespear appeared to be both skilled and somewhat ruthless. Over the past two years, she has been building her alliances on the left, establishing her progressive bona fides in preparation for her state Senate run.
But it may turn out that her timing is wrong. By placing her chips on a progressive coalition, she may be presenting a version of herself that is losing its appeal.
Across the country, even in California, voters have begun to show that they reject the extreme nostrums of the left.
School board races, primary and special elections, public polling — the evidence has been mounting.
Worries about inflation, the economy, and national security loom large. In California, homelessness, crime, and housing affordability are top of mind.
Typically, dissatisfied voters blame incumbents, an instinct that benefits newcomers.
We may see national politics having an effect in California. Polls show that 70% believe the country is on the wrong track.
Generic ballot polling on congressional elections shows a 5-point preference for Republicans versus Democrats, a reversal since four years ago. There is much talk of a Red Wave in November.
It’s hard to project how down-ballot races will play out, but to paraphrase a vulgar expression, stuff rolls downhill. Even a Red Ripple in California could prove decisive in a close election.
Eventually, the Blakespear-Gunderson race will shift into mano a mano combat, so we’ll begin to see more direct attacks on each other.
Since she has a record to defend, Blakespear will be more vulnerable and may not hold up well under pressure.
It may come to pass that voters in Encinitas, who know her best, will determine the outcome for the entire district.
Garvin Walsh is a resident of Encinitas.