Rep. Susan Davis

Rep. Susan Davis not to seek re-election in 2020 

Who will replace Rep. Susan Davis in Congress?

The American political system is like fast food – mushy, insipid, made out of disgusting parts of things…and everyone wants some.

—P.J. O’Rourke

As if the 2020 San Diego political landscape wasn’t already awash in enough campaign drama, long-time U.S. Rep. Susan Davis declaring last week that she would not seek re-election to Congress seemed to raise the floodwaters of hysteria.

Like positions in journalism, the job of sitting member of Congress—with its lack of term limits —infrequently avails itself these days, particularly in congressional districts that are considered “safe” for either Democrats or Republicans. (Case in point: the Republican-tilting 50th, where alleged campaign-dough free-spender Duncan D. Hunter continues to campaign for re-election despite a 60-count federal indictment hanging over his head.)

The 53rd Congressional District—which Davis has represented since it was the old 49th District in 2001 (changed through redistricting to the 53rd in 2003)—is considered another safe haven like the 50th, but for Democrats.

Spin makes note of this because the Davis announcement sent speculators into overdrive, even across the political aisle. A San Francisco Chronicle article last week glowingly profiled termed-out San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer as “a rare Republican ray of hope for a party that has no statewide elected officials…and a statewide congressional delegation that can fit into a Honda Odyssey.” The story suggested that Faulconer “has been mentioned” as a contender for the 53rd.

“There will be plenty of time to think about those things,” the mayor was quoted as saying in the story that ran prior to a speech he was giving at last weekend’s California Republican Party convention in scorching Indian Wells.

But while he’s thinking, Faulconer should probably heed the advice of his long-time campaign guru. “Zero chance of GOP coming within 20 points” of victory, Jason Roe told Spin Monday. “No Republican with any sense is going to run in 53. There is zero scenario in which that is winnable.”

So this one will fall to the Democrats to hash out, it appears. Some party insiders worry about the “domino effect” a congressional race could unleash in a district that spans from eastern Chula Vista to western El Cajon to central San Diego. But local Democratic Party Chairman Will Rodriguez-Kennedy told Spin he’s not concerned.

“It does not really complicate 2020 plans,” he said. “There are over 200 races that are contested in a year. Adding one or two more doesn’t change the overall plan, especially since these are safe Democratic seats.”

He was referring to scenarios bandied about by local pundits where Council President Georgette Gómez, now a political force to be reckoned with on such critical subjects as affordable housing and mass transit, might run the risk of losing all of that power should she abandon her re-election plans for Council District 9 and lose while seeking the congressional seat.

The same goes for state Assembly member Shirley Weber, another rumored potential 53rd candidate widely respected for her focus on criminal-justice and education reforms. 

Some insiders lament the possibility of losing such critical voices at the local and state levels into the black hole that is the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives. “I’m not sure what Georgette could do about public transit in Congress, but OK,” one party observer sighed privately.

One certain candidate is Sara Jacobs, granddaughter of Qualcomm billionaire Irwin Jacobs, who certainly won’t have to fret financially about the relatively short campaign-fundraising timeframe created by Davis’s announcement. She joins two other candidates—former Navy nuclear engineer and self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Jose Caballero and community organizer Joaquín Vázquez, both who entered the race prior to Davis announcing her decision not to run.

In interviews since her announcement, Davis has not indicated she has a favorite to succeed her. Voice of San Diego reported that she would prefer a woman, which seems sensible since she’s the only one among the five county congressional representatives.

Davis has made one thing clear, however. Her replacement, as she said in a recent Voice of San Diego podcast, should have “the public interest at heart, not personal interest.”

That may have been a message to prospective candidates who think of the job as a stepping-stone to higher office, something Davis herself never seemed to contemplate once she arrived in Washington, D.C.

“They’ll be my representative, too,” she noted in the podcast, adding with a laugh, “maybe I’m looking for somebody like me.”

Local heavy hitters who have said no thanks to running in the 53rd include Assembly member and mayoral candidate Todd Gloria, state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins and influential Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez. Her husband, freshman county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, meanwhile has remained quiet about his interest.

Spin reached out to Fletcher’s campaign consultant, Dan Rottenstreich (also the consultant for Gómez), but he did not respond when asked about Fletcher’s 2020 plans.

Meanwhile, the local Democratic Party chairman said he wasn’t sweating the fluid situation. “Individual candidates will make their own calculations,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said, “but the party must keep its focus on the mission: electing good Democrats across the county who will advance our vision of a more sustainable, just, equitable and prosperous future.”

Whoever ultimately decides to join the 53rd fray will likely be asked what one party insider wondered privately: “I still haven’t figured out why anyone who has the ability to make actual policies wants to be in Congress.”

But the prospect of a Weber vs. Gómez vs. Jacobs battle for a congressional seat also has some Democratic folks cringing. “I wouldn’t even know what to do there,” said one insider. Bunker down, maybe? “Right, and wait for it to end.”

As one party member noted, “Donors aren’t going to give a shit about this race. We need to flip the White House, flip the Senate, flip the county Board of Supervisors, flip the mayorship and push a ton of ballot measures.”

But cutting a maximum check for a race in a heavily blue district? That might be the ultimate delirium.