One political party could capture a seat that it hasn’t held in more than four decades and help secure the party’s takeover of the House of Representatives.
Or, the other party could win the seat and put a dent in the national narrative of a so-called “Blue Wave” fueled by President Donald Trump’s unpopularity.
This is what is at stake in California’s 49th Congressional District, long tabbed to be one of the most contentious congressional races during a 2018 midterm election cycle where Republicans are fending off a furious push by Democrats to take back the House.
Once considered to be a showdown between longtime U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa and the Democrats, the race became wide open in January when Issa announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. Now, 16 candidates — four Democrats, eight Republicans, one Libertarian, once Green, one Peace and Freedom, and one with no party preference — are on the June 5 primary ballot, with the two highest vote-getters, regardless of political party, advancing to the Nov. 6 general election.
One thing is certain, according to experts and members of both parties: the stakes are high for both sides.
“I think both sides have a lot riding on this race,” UCSD political science professor Thaddeus Kousser said. “No seat is not important when control of the House is in the balance, so it has meaning to both parties.”
John Vigna, spokesman for the California Democratic Party, underscored the race’s importance when he called it “one of the most crucial fights in California.”
“In California, we understand the role we have to play in taking back the House for our country,” Vigna said. “This is one of the races that will help us get there.”
Both parties expressed confidence in their chances of victory in November.
“We feel good about holding on to the 49th,” said Tony Krvaric, chairman of the Republican Party of San Diego. “The Democrats have little to offer but hate for Congressman Issa and President Trump. That’s not a winning message with the fair minded voters of the 49th District.”
Change in Dynamics
A number of dynamics have come into play that have made the 49th District — once a Republican stronghold — suddenly a toss-up for either major party.
From a partisan perspective, the district, which stretches from Coastal North County to South Orange County including Vista, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Encinitas and Camp Pendleton, has nearly equal registration between the two major parties. The Cook Partisan Voting Index, a measure of how strongly a district leans Republican or Democrat, is an R +1, one of the slimmest margins in the congressional landscape.
Secondly, the district, while Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in voter registration, views Trump unfavorably. In 2016, 49th District voters overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton.
These two dynamics played themselves out in the 2016 district race when Issa was nearly upset by Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel who lost by less than 2,000 votes, or less than 1 percent.
Since Issa’s narrow victory, Democrats have campaigned nearly nonstop in an effort to unseat the incumbent, who they said was aligned almost lockstep with Trump. Along with Applegate, Orange County environmental attorney Mike Levin, Rancho Santa Fe Businessman Paul Kerr and former international nonprofit director Sara Jacobs comprise the Democrat field.
Then Issa announced his retirement, which Democrats across the country hailed as “the first victory” in the district.
Issa’s retirement ushered in a hosts of new Republican challengers. The three with the most name recognition, however, are Board of Equalization memeber Diane Harkey, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kristin Gaspar.
But Kousser said that Issa’s abrupt retirement could have the reverse effect on the race.
“It might have strengthened the Republicans hand,” Kousser said, pointing to two possible theories. “Democrats expended a lot of energy and motivation to get rid of Issa, and by accomplishing that, it takes out a lot of that energy and momentum, because now Issa is gone, and there is an entire new field they have to plan for. They can’t run against Issa’s voting record and his alignment with Trump.”
Vigna acknowledged that the retirement of Issa has made the race “much more opaque” than before, but downplayed its effect on the party’s energy in the district.
“The energy has not dissipated in the slightest,” Vigna said. “Democrats are outperforming expectations in district after district, and the 49th is no different.
“The party’s commitment is not just to defeat an incumbent, it is to win more than the 24 seats needed to bring back sanity to Congress. I’m sure there were some people who would have loved to defeat an incumbent who has been a hypocrite every step of the way, but at the end of the day, it’s about taking back the House not beating a particular candidate,” Vigna said.
Open Primary intrigue
The other significant factor coming into play in this race is California’s top-two primary laws, which have both parties concerned about the potential for losing the seat before the November election.
But Democrats in particular, have been most concerned as all four candidates remain entrenched in the race and the state and national party have chosen not to endorse a candidate.
At a recent “Flip the 49th” rally outside of Issa’s office, several voters said that was one thing that concerned them about the June primary.
“I believe that the new candidates need to narrow down to get one good candidate, there are a lot of good candidates out there, but they need to really narrow down to which is the best one of the group and go with it,” said Cynthia Free, a San Diego resident who has attended many of the weekly rallies with her husband, Roger.
“I think they need to leave just two or three (candidates),” Roger Free added. “There is just too many.”
So far, none of the Democrats have conceded. Recent polls have shown Chavez leading the race, with Applegate in second and a logjam of candidates receiving anywhere between 7 to 9 percent of the vote.
Kousser said that as long as the candidates stay in, the likelihood of one party getting two of the spots in the general election becomes a real possibility.
“It creates a possibility of a debacle where the Democrats could lose the possibility to even take a shot at the seat,” Kousser said. “Before when it was just Issa, you could welcome every candidate, in fact the more the merrier. But now they need to clean the field, but of course, this is America, it’s a free country and no one candidate has more power than the other, so there’s no way to stop them.”
Locally, San Diego County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jessica Hayes said she doesn’t see why Democrats can’t take both primary seats, pointing to issues such as women’s rights, veterans rights and environmental concerns that she believes favor Democratic candidates when it comes to independent and some Republican voters.
“Issa isn’t in the race anymore, and he has his followers that are devoted to him,” Hayes said. “He’s not driving turnout anymore, and no one really knows who the Republicans are. Some might skip the race. They don’t have one strong candidate.”
Republicans, however, said they feel that some recent developments — namely the state’s unpopular gas tax and vehicle registration increase and the state’s sanctuary stance that has caused backlash in some Republican dominated communities — has resonated with voters.
“By contrast, voters are with Republicans when it comes to opposing Sanctuary State policies, offering school choice, defending our Constitutional rights, and repealing the Democrats’ car/gas tax,” Krvaric said.
Quietly, however, Democrats behind the scenes have been speaking with some of the lower polling candidates in an effort to have them rethink their position of staying in the race during the final month.
Vigna said that the party wants to avoid a “black eye” that they incurred in 2012 in a San Bernardino race, when the same dynamic allowed two Republicans to advance to the general election in a district that Democrats were favored to win.
In 2014, Democrats claimed the San Bernardino seat, but Vigna said that a second lesson would be tough to swallow.
“I’m not going to lie, having two Republicans advance would be a stinging defeat,” Vigna said.
Vigna said that he thinks voters, recognizing the stakes, might also naturally take this into consideration at the polls.
“I think our voters are sensing the urgency of the moment,” Vigna said.