By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch
Election Day 2016 is just over two months away, and for the first time since being elected to Congress in 2000, Darrell Issa (R-49) might face real difficulty in keeping his job. The millionaire Issa, the richest member of Congress for the third year running, is facing a challenge from Doug Applegate, an attorney and former Marine from San Clemente.
Issa has enjoyed solid support in the district since initially winning his seat in 2000 by 28 points. From 2002 through the 2010 general elections, Issa never failed to emerge victorious by less than 29 points; but his popularity seems to have waned since the Tea Party wave of 2010. Although he won his 2012 primary by 37 points, the general election was a much narrower 10-point victory. In 2014, he defeated his nearest primary challenger by 29 points, 15 points in the general.
This past June, however, was a different story.
Newcomer Doug Applegate, a Democrat, has presented an unusually strong challenge for the controversial Republican, where Issa squeaked out a primary win 48.45 percent to 47.85 percent, less than a full percentage point in the San Diego County portion of the district. Including the Orange County portion, Issa won by a mere 5.7 percentage points.
You might recall that beginning in 2012, California switched to a voter-approved open primary system, where the top two vote winners advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation. And Issa has never faced a serious electoral challenge from any party — until now.
So why is a safe seat suddenly not so safe anymore? It may have something to do with the top of the Republican ticket in the presidential election, Donald J. Trump.
After initially supporting Marco Rubio in the Republican presidential primary, Issa has enthusiastically jumped aboard the Trump Train, going so far as to introduce Trump at a San Diego rally in May. He also attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland as a Trump delegate. Turns out that’s not such a popular position, particularly in areas with a lot of moderate Republicans and independents, and nearly a quarter of the voters in the 49th District are registered as independents.
It could also be that Issa’s challenger, Doug Applegate, holds a unique appeal in a district that surrounds Camp Pendleton. A Marine for 32 years, Applegate actually served at Pendleton and has deep ties to the district.
Or it could be an indication that Issa’s years of controversial statements and fruitless investigations as chairman of the House Oversight Committee between 2011 and 2014, costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, may have caught up to him.
Whatever the case, Applegate’s performance in the primary and his subsequent fundraising prowess has caused the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to take notice of a district that until now had been viewed as a lost cause.
According to the Orange County Register, DCCC polling has indicated a tied race between the candidates, with Issa and Applegate each drawing 43 percent. And after spending a mere $50,000 in the primary compared with Issa’s $740,000, Applegate managed to raise an additional $128,000 since the end of the primary through June. Still, Issa has a massive money advantage, with $3.7 million cash on hand in his campaign coffers compared with $136,000 for Applegate as of the end of June. But in an election year such as this, money may not be all that much of an advantage.
And Issa isn’t the only one who could be dragged down by Trump’s candidacy. The New York Times (a publication that according to Trump is “failing” despite its status as the nation’s publication of record, with apologies to the Washington Post), Republican candidates across the country are running as fast as they can away from Trump in order to save their jobs.
And Trump may have already cost one Republican San Diego City Council candidate his shot at election and ensured that the City Council will remain in Democratic majority hands for at least two more years. Ray Ellis, the District 1 candidate running against Democrat Barbara Bry cited Trump’s toxicity in his decision to concede the race months before Election Day.
Issa appears to be taking this challenge seriously, unlike his former colleague Eric Cantor, the arch conservative former House Majority Leader who lost a primary in 2014 to an even more hard right conservative Republican challenger. Issa has been making himself visible within his district, visiting local startup businesses and listening to concerns about how government has been a hindrance or a help for local small business owners (here’s a hint: Echoing Ronald Reagan, “government is the problem, not the solution.”). Issa even manned a cash register at a local Oceanside gas station in an effort to connect with the little people.
(It should also be noted that according to the San Diego Union Tribune, Scott Peters (D-52) also spent time at an affiliated gas station to discuss the same regulatory issues that Issa was exploring.)
With the Nov. 8 Election Day fast approaching, it remains to be seen whether Applegate is truly poised to do what was once considered impossible. After all, uprooting an incumbent is rare enough, but uprooting an incumbent who has been so entrenched as Issa is virtually unheard of.
But in a highly unusual and polarizing election, it is possible that Issa’s vociferous support of all things Trump combined with a challenger whose background uniquely reflects the district he seeks to serve could bring to an end a long and often controversial congressional career.
—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.