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What Are Ed Lee's Reelection Chances?

Scott Lucas | November 6, 2014 | Story Politics

Surprising no one, Mayor Ed Lee said today that he would be standing for reelection to a second full term as mayor in 2015. So what are the chances of the happy mayor winning again? Let's break 'em down.

Track Record
In 2011, Lee cruised against a strong field. He won his first full term in office by a final round margin of 59.6% to second-place finisher Supervisor John Avalos's 40.4%. The percentage of voters who placed him first on their ranked-choice ballot—a good indication of the size of his base—was 30.8%. Lee's big challenge came from those—like Avalos and City Attorney Dennis Herrera—who ran to the his left.

Approval Rating
There isn't much in the way of regular public opinion polling on Lee's job approval numbers. But the few polls that do exist present a pretty good showing for Lee. In September 2012, it was 49%. In March 2013, it was 65%. In October 2014, internal polling put it at 64%. Those numbers give a basic window into where the Mayor's natural level of support is—let's split the difference and call it the mid-50s, depending on the month and year. That's good for him. But election's aren't just thumbs up or down on the Mayor. He'll have challengers. Much depends on who they are. Which brings us to:

Who Runs Against Him?
That's a big question—probably the biggest. Names are swirling among progressives unhappy with the mayor's track record in office. Two that have risen to the top lately have been State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano and State Senator Mark Leno. It's also possible that former Mayor Art Agnos could take a run, as could Avalos, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, or Public Defender Jeff Adachi—all of whom threw their hats into the ring in 2011. A challenger running to the mayor's right probably wouldn't pick up much traction, so much depends on which candidate progressives coalesce behind. There's no formal party structure or primary process here, so the effort to converge can be a bit chaotic, and may well be again this year.

On the Issues
Lee has taken some lumps during his time in office. Most pressing are voter concerns about the city's affordability crisis. How much they blame the mayor—or credit his efforts to address the problem—will go a long way to reelection. The waterfront development fights have gone against him—most especially the Warriors arena plan, which was rebuked by the voters—and there's lingering unhappiness about his encouragement of tech companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Twitter. (Not to mention the Google buses.) But the meat and potatoes of the race should be expected to revolve around things like housing costs. Despite the loss of Proposition G, progressives can make a strong case here.

So, Seriously, Does the Mayor Win?
In many ways, Lee is in an enviable position. The economy is strong. He enjoys incumbency advantage. He can count on a substantial amount of fundraising. But—and this is where it gets interesting—if a challenger emerges who can grab voters on the left while also demonstrating centrist credentials, Lee could be in for a real fight. (We'd call that the Bill de Blasio model, but more recently it's the Libby Schaaf approach.) The last time an incumbent lost the mayorship was when Willie Brown unseated Frank Jordan in 1995 (Jordan, in turn, had offed incumbent Art Agnos). So, at the very least, we wouldn't bet heavily against the mayor. At least not yet. But stay tuned.

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