REGION — A Republican and a Democrat will vie for the 49th Congressional District seat in November after weeks of speculation that Democrats might fall victim to California’s “top two” primary system.
Republican Diane Harkey emerged as the top vote-getter after the June 5 primary election in the race to replace Darrell Issa, who did not seek re-election. The State Board of Equalization member will likely face Orange County environmental attorney Mike Levin, who leads Sara Jacobs and Doug Applegate with thousands of ballots remaining to be counted.
Harkey, speaking to reporters Tuesday night, said she was optimistic about her chances of moving on after the final vote is tallied.
“I am really pleased (with the early results),” Harkey said. “I am hoping they continue but I think they will.”
Although Levin has claimed victory in a speech Tuesday night to supporters, Jacobs has yet to concede.
“We were thrilled with several things last night,” Levin said. “One, obviously, was the turnout in general for Democrats, which was terrific. It was an effort not only of our campaign and the other campaigns, but also the independent groups such as Flip the 49th and Indivisible, which ensured that Democrats who only vote in presidential years would get out and vote.
“I was thrilled with our ground game and get out the vote efforts led to a real surge down the stretch, which was ultimately the margin of victory in the race,” he said.
Levin said he was moving forward as Harkey’s presumptive opponent in the November runoff, despite Jacobs not conceding.
“Absolutely, we won this race,” he said.
“We knew this election would be very close,” Jacobs said in a statement. “Election officials in Orange and SD County are saying there are tens of thousands of ballots that remain to be counted. It’s important that every vote be counted and we’re going to allow that process to continue.”
A Harkey/Levin matchup in the mid-term elections would pit two Orange County candidates in what will likely be one of the most bitterly contested races during the midterm cycle. Both sides have already poured millions of dollars into the primary alone.
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.
“A lot of money will be spent, it will probably be extremely nasty, which it may not have been as bad if it were two Republicans,” Harkey said. “I think it is going to be the expense and the amount of pressure on both sides to perform and to keep it going, because it is a very, very important seat.”
Originally, Democrats had targeted Issa, who barely survived a 2016 re-election bid against Applegate, but Issa announced in January that he would retire at the end of his term.
The race yielded 16 candidates, though much of the attention has been placed on the four major Democrats — Levin, Jacobs, Applegate and Rancho Santa Fe businessman Paul Kerr — and three major Republicans — Harkey, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.
Once leading in early polls, Chavez, considered a moderate Republican, faded to a sixth place finish behind Gaspar, who had aligned herself with President Donald Trump in the months leading up to the campaign.
Pundits and Democratic strategists had feared that the crowded Democratic field would split the vote enough that two of the Republicans would be able to advance to the primary. In California, the top two candidates regardless of party advance to the runoff.
But Democrats were able to avoid the scenario with its three top vote recipients badly outstripping the second- and third-placed Republican.
John Dadian, a San Diego-based political consultant, said he wasn’t too surprised with the results, as he predicted a Harkey/Levin matchup several months ago. He said the biggest surprise in his eyes was the seventh-place finish by Paul Kerr, who outspent his Democratic counterparts combined in the leadup to the election.
“The only thing that surprised me was how far down Paul Kerr finished on the ballot,” Dadian said. He spent $4 million, and to spend that much and to finish that far down, surprised me.”
Dadian said that the likely November matchup is fairly even.
“Whoever has the best strategy and stays true to their game plan I think will win it,” Dadian said, giving Harkey the slight edge at this point.