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Mayoral race in flux as Fletcher bolts GOP

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Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher’s decision to drop his affiliation with the Republican Party in his bid to be San Diego’s next mayor generated no shortage of political reactions.

Political opponents and allies rushed to chastise and support the decision, respectively. The former branded it a politically expedient, panic-driven move while the latter pledged continued support and argued that a change in party affiliation wasn’t a change in philosophy.

And beyond the speculation of its impacts on the mayoral race is a conversation of what this means for the future of a 35-year-old former Marine who was a favored figure in the state party’s outlook.

The California Republican Party had previously said it wouldn’t endorse a candidate ahead of June’s primary. Now, Chairman Thomas Del Beccaro says the possibility is “back on the table.”

A Center for Education Policy and Law/UT San Diego poll released Saturday had Fletcher tied for last place at 10 percent support with Republican District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. City Councilman Carl DeMaio garnered 24 percent support and Congressman Bob Filner had 20 percent, with 35 percent of voters undecided. Twenty-eight percent of San Diego voters are registered Republican, while 40 percent are registered Democrat and the remainder are Independent.

Fletcher has been short on name recognition in the race after spending most of his political career dealing with state-level issues in Sacramento rather than dominating local headlines.

But that hasn’t affected his fundraising prowess. Fletcher has raised $964,000 as of March 17, trailing only DeMaio’s $1.26 million, more than $500,000 of which came from his personal wealth.

At least in terms of the mayoral election, Fletcher leaving the GOP is a smart political move, according to Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

Fletcher has a better chance of winning as an independent than he did as a Republican, Luna said.

“It allows him to position himself between DeMaio and Filner, rather than just compete for the conservative vote with DeMaio,” he said. “If Dumanis were to drop out, that would really make him a strong candidate.”

But Del Beccaro said the decision seemed motivated by mid-campaign stress.

“Decisions like this are better left to post-campaign reflection than mid-campaign action,” he said.

Fletcher’s gambit is certainly a risky one. If he doesn’t win the mayoral election, he’ll be left without public office and without party backing that would help him lick his wounds and prepare for his next race.

“When you’re in third place, this is a political Hail Mary that might work,” Del Beccaro said. "Everyone’s talking about Nathan Fletcher. This could even be picked up nationally. It’s no small issue when a major city’s mayoral candidate bolts his party.”

But local Democratic Party Chair Jess Durfee, following his release of a statement pointing to Fletcher’s past associations with Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, said Fletcher wouldn’t be able to hide from his conservative bona fides.

“If he had a different record it might work,” he said. “His record speaks for itself. He’s not a moderate, he’s a conservative Republican.”

Fletcher said he aligns Republican on fiscal issues, but is closer to a Democrat on issues like environmental stewardship and gay rights.

His wife, Mindy Fletcher, is a former aide to President George W. Bush.

Explanations for Fletcher’s switch ran the gamut of political rationale. Some called it a ploy for cheap news coverage to address his name recognition problem. Others said he abandoned the Republican Party after failing to garner its local leadership’s endorsement only after using the conservative designation to assist fundraising for as long as he could.

For his part, Fletcher deflected each of the suggestions as mere skepticism. He said he’s wrestled with the decision since he first ran for office in 2006 and felt obligated to tell voters before the election.

At a press conference, he said he’d reached out to many of his high-profile Republican supporters and had not yet lost anyone’s endorsement. He named three state assembly members, and his campaign later sent an email of reconfirmed support from local business leaders, including Qualcomm (Nasdaq: QCOM) CEO Paul Jacobs.

Former San Diego Mayor and California Gov. Pete Wilson told UT San Diego he wished Fletcher had decided to stay in the party and change what he didn’t like, but reaffirmed his support of the candidate.

The Log Cabin Republicans of San Diego County, a GOP group supporting gay and lesbian rights, later became the first major organization to pull its backing.

In a statement, the group’s president, Victoria Kerley, lauded Fletcher’s support for repealing the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, and said there’s now a void of mainstream Republicans in the election.

Reached by phone, she said the group was cornered by its bylaws, which require candidates to be registered Republicans in order to receive its endorsement.

“We were caught by surprise by the announcement,” she said. “So, personal support aside, our organization had to issue the statement we did.”

The group’s board meets on Saturday and will discuss making another endorsement, though Kerley expects it’ll opt not to.

Another Fletcher supporter, Ryan Trabuco, commissioner of the Juvenile Justice Commission of San Diego County and president of the Clairemont Town Council, said he was shocked and disappointed to hear the announcement Wednesday morning, but after speaking with Fletcher has decided to maintain his support.

“To me, I’d be a bad friend if I was supporting him one day and the next day I wasn’t,” he said.

The decision was also seen as a potential wake-up call to Filner, whose lax campaign has been seen as a result of his position as the only Democrat in the race. As an independent, Fletcher can better challenge Filner for the city’s liberal voters.

Filner’s put his effort behind building a ground campaign, according to Durfee. That effort will become more apparent in the coming weeks as candidates begin chasing absentee ballots.

Republican Party Chair Tony Krvaric compared the party switch to Rick Santorum attempting to run as a member of the Green Party, and said Fletcher was driven only by ambition for higher office.

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