This is Darrell Issa country: The 49th Congressional District runs along the coast from southern Orange County to northern San Diego County. Its proximity to military bases such as Camp Pendleton, a substantial retirement community and other demographic factors have made the district a longtime Republican stronghold.
Issa, one of the wealthiest members of the House, has held the seat comfortably since 2001.
Issa has won re-election handily, term after term, even in a region where other Republicans have lost their seats to redistricting, new demographics and ideological swings.
But the nature of the district is changing and Issa may be facing a significant reelection fight this year from Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine Corps officer and a lawyer.
Issa has earned seats on the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. An inventor and entrepreneur himself, he also chairs the subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet.
Issa is worth between $299 million and $768 million, according to financial disclosure documents he filed last year. He rose to public attention in California for his unsuccessful 1998 Senate run and for bankrolling the successful 2003 campaign to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. Issa also is a visible and vocal critic of President Obama, garnering disdain from Democrats and reverence from many, but not all, Republicans.
Since entering the public arena, Issa also has been scrutinized for his checkered past. Critics have alluded to conflicts of interests between his private and congressional interests. Past professional acquaintances have alleged questionable business practices. Political rivals and the press have called him names from corrupt to just plain mean, in part because of his role as the aggressive chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
A recent DCCC poll had Issa and Appelgate tied at 43 percent.
Despite that high-profile criticism, Issa has won re-election handily, term after term, even in a region where other Republicans have lost their seats to redistricting, new demographics and ideological swings.
In an election year where almost nothing else seems sure, Issa’s seat appeared to be a district the Republicans could easily retain. History is on their side: Democrats have tried repeatedly to take the seat and been handily rebuffed.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hasn’t written Applegate a check yet, but county Democrats hope to get support from the national Democratic strategists.
Applegate came within 5 percentage points of Issa in the June 7 top-two primary, according to the state elections officer. That may not sound like a cliff-hanger, but in the 2014 primary, Issa thumped his closest rival by better than 2-to-1. n the most recent presidential general election, 2012, Issa beat his challenger by more than 10 percent.
A recent DCCC poll had the two tied at 43 percent.
Democrats looking at the numbers are optimistic, although a lot can happen in the five months until election day.
“It just seems like all the stars are aligning this year in this district,” said Francine Busby, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party.
Back when much of this region was in the 50th Congressional District, Busby ran for the seat herself in 2004 against Randy “Duke” Cunningham. In 2006, she ran again for Cunningham’s seat after he was indicted and eventually convicted of bribery. Since then, the 49th district was re-shaped: it became more coastal, encompassing some of the southern coastal cities of the 50th including Encinitas, La Jolla, and Del Mar.
According to Busby, it’s less the geography and more the demographics that have shifted the tide in Democrats’ favor.
Since 2012, Democratic registration in the San Diego County portion of the district has grown by nearly 4,000, and Republicans have dropped by a little more than 10,000. Decline-to-state voters are also still a big factor as well, comprising about a quarter of the district’s electorate, and according to the DCCC poll, Applegate led by a significant margin — 32 points — among that group.
Issa endorsed Trump in a statement, calling him the ‘obvious choice’ for president. Applegate called Trump ‘wholly unqualified to be commander-in-chief.’
Of the district’s 358,000 registered voters, nearly two-thirds live in San Diego County, where the Democratic strength is growing. The rest live in heavily Republican Orange County. Overall, the district is 39.6 percent Republican and 31.1 percent Democratic, with 24.3 percent who declined to state a party preference. Of the latter, three out of four live in San Diego County.
“For years, people have asked me, ‘How do we beat Issa?’” Busby said. “The fact that Applegate) came within one percent (in the San Diego County vote) and is tied in a poll … indicates that money, name recognition, incumbency, and voter registration, all the things normally in favor of him, are obviously not enough to protect him in his seat.”
Democrats also hope that Issa’s association with GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump will work against him.
Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, particularly about immigration, has him in hot water with Latino voters, who comprise 13 percent of the district’s registered voters and about 8 percent of Issa’s Republican base.
That may be wishful thinking, however: Latino voters tend to turn out in fewer numbers than their registration level suggests, and the 49th District has broad areas of high-propensity, older, affluent Republican voters who have supported Issa in the past.
But if support or opposition to Trump proves to be decisive in this race, the differences between Issa and Applegate are clear: Issa endorsed Trump in a statement calling him the ‘obvious choice’ for president. Applegate called Trump ‘wholly unqualified to be commander-in-chief,’ in a phone interview with Capitol Weekly.
An Issa aide suggested Applegate was helped by a competitive presidential race on the Democratic side but not the Republican side.
Since Applegate’s primary showing, an anti-Issa contingent has rallied behind him, starting the “Darrell Issa Retirement Fund” to raise money for Applegate.
Through May, Appelgate raised about $53,000 for his campaign from largely individual donations, according to federal financial disclosure records. Since the June 7 primary, Appelgate said he has raised three times that amount. He hopes the showing will get the DCCC’s attention.
Issa, meanwhile, reported more than $700,000 in total contributions through May.
Issa campaign aide Jonathan Wilcox said the district has seen a surge in Democratic registration and turnout, and suggested that Applegate was helped by a competitive presidential race on the Democratic side but not the Republican side.
But he said Issa has strong name recognition and support throughout the district established over a period of years.
“We know that the 49th district knows Darrell Issa … he built a business there,” Wilcox said, adding that “we’re going to focus on the congressman’s record and accomplishments.”
Despite Issa’s financial resources and advantages of incumbency, Democrats remain optimistic, citing negative publicity in his district and nationwide over the last few years.
“There is a counter-balance to what Darrell Issa can do with respect to money,” Applegate said, adding that voters will oust “Darrell Issa on his record alone.”
That line of attack echoes the downfall of form House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, who resigned his Virginia seat after losing the June 2014 primary to a tea-party Republican challenger. According to polls, voters turned against Cantor because he was conspicuously absent from his home district and spent time cultivating his position as a party leader and campaigning for other Republicans.
Cantor may be a cautionary tale for ambitious legislators like Issa, who has made a name for himself through involvement in high profile political fights like the 2003 gubernatorial recall, investigations of the IRS, and challenges of the Affordable Care Act.
But that doesn’t mean that Issa’s base will abandon him for Applegate.
Republicans still are a majority of the registered voters in the district, and as Wilcox pointed out, a competitive Democratic primary and a settled Republican one probably boosted liberal turnout and depressed Republican numbers in the primary.
“He’s going to be returned to Congress to continue (his) work,” Wilcox said.
Every challenger Issa has faced has had an uphill battle. But as for the incumbent’s statement that his opponent will need millions to make the race interesting, Applegate disagrees.
“This is going to be a compelling, competitive, and very interesting race,” Applegate said.