Issa’s Congressional Comeback Comes Down to Trump Loyalty Test

Darrell Issa‘s comeback bid hits a critical hurdle on Super Tuesday following an expensive, rough-and-tumble primary waged over presidential loyalty.

Issa, one of three former House Republicans running in new districts to ease their paths back to Capitol Hill, has exchanged blistering ads with Carl DeMaio, a fellow San Diego-area Republican who previously ran for a neighboring seat. The two tried to undercut each other’s credibility among supporters of President Donald Trump.

That dynamic, playing out in Republican primaries across the country, is complicated by California’s top-two primary process and the fact that both politicians entered the race with well-known profiles from past public battles.

“They’ve got a lot of baggage and a lot of scar tissue,” said Jason Cabel Roe, a veteran Republican consultant based in San Diego.

Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg
Former Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) comeback bid faces a Super Tuesday test.

The Players

Former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) — who replaced his father, also named Duncan Hunter, in 2009 — vacated the 50th District seat in January, a month after pleading guilty to conspiring to steal campaign funds. The seat will remain vacant until after the November election.

Issa, a car alarm magnate who was one of the richest members of Congress, represented a coastal district that in the previous decade included parts of the current 50th. As chairman of the House Oversight committee from 2011 to 2015, Issa was a prominent critic of President Barack Obama and pushed the Benghazi investigation.

Issa was re-elected by a thin margin in 2016 and retired two years later rather than fend off another stiff challenge. Mike Levin (D) won the 2018 open-seat race to succeed Issa in the 49th District with 56% of the vote, one of seven seats Democrats picked up in the state.

After avoiding a potential loss, Issa faces that possibility now despite running in a district far more favorable to Republicans.

“This is no cakewalk to victory for Darrell Issa, either in March or November,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

DeMaio, the first openly gay man on the San Diego city council, rose to prominence as a businessman and activist who pushed to reform the city’s pension system. He was unsuccessful in two recent bids for office, including for mayor in 2012 and a challenge to Rep. Scott Peters (D) in the 52nd District in 2014. He later redirected his ambition toward tax causes, pushing in 2018 for a repeal of the state gas tax.

DeMaio’s pugnacious personality and fiery temper, which were on full display in City Hall and on his talk radio show, leaves him with few local allies, Roe said.

The San Diego Union-Tribune endorsed the other two candidates to keep an eye on among the 10 who will appear on the ballot, state Sen. Brian Jones (R) and Ammar Campa-Najjar (D). Campa-Najjar is a communications consultant and former Labor Department official who in 2018 came within 4 percentage points of unseating Hunter, who was under federal indictment.

The Playbook

The top-two finishers in the March 3 all-party primary will advance to the November general election. It’s unlikely two Republicans will emerge, which led to a scorched-earth primary battle between Issa and DeMaio over who is more aligned with Trump’s immigration and social policies.

They combined to spend more than $3 million on advertising, according to Advertising Analytics.

Trump hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race, but Issa, who gave his campaign $3 million of the $4.2 million he brought in by Feb. 12, has portrayed the president as a supporter in his most recent ads. One released Wednesday, titled “Trump Reinforcements,” highlighted negative comments DeMaio made about Trump and sought to drive a wedge between their immigration stances.

Issa also used DeMaio’s past descriptions of Trump in the spot he released last week, in which the announcer says, “If you stand with Trump, vote against Carl DeMaio.”

“The President needs someone who will fight by his side to pass his agenda,” Issa spokesman Greg Blair said in an email.

The latest DeMaio ad, titled “Betraying the President,” compares Issa to Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), the only Republican who voted to convict the president in the Senate impeachment trial. Another ad highlights Issa’s call for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, and the congressman’s prior support for amnesty for undocumented immigrants. “Don’t believe Issa’s lies,” the ad’s announcer says. “Trump has not endorsed Issa.”

DeMaio raised $2.8 million by the pre-primary filing deadline, including a $250,000 loan to himself. He credits the proliferation of small-dollar donations for keeping his campaign afloat.

“I’m a fighter who stands up against tax increases for working families, to reform the government, to cut for wasteful spending, and to force politicians to live with the same laws as the rest of us, no exceptions,” DeMaio said in an interview.

Two outside groups have invested heavily, both in favor of DeMaio.

Club for Growth Action, a conservative group that supports reducing income tax rates and the scope of government, has spent $180,000 on direct mail and digital ads to oppose Issa. American Unity PAC, which backs Republicans who support pro-LGBT policies, spent $117,000 on digital ads to support DeMaio.

What’s Ahead

The 50th District, which covers suburbs and small ranch towns in eastern San Diego County and southern Riverside County, has been a GOP stronghold since the 1980s. With Hunter gone, the Cook Political Report currently rates the race as safe for Republicans.

Whichever Republican advances will start with the advantage, though Kousser said the GOP campaigns’ focus on Trump in the primary could alienate voters in November.

A bitter battle between Issa and DeMaio over loyalty to Trump will “absolutely” help Campa-Najjar in the general election, the Democratic candidate said in an email. He raised nearly $2 million by Feb. 12 and had $704,000 in cash on hand.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Sacramento, Calif. at tstecker@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com

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