REGION — As June primaries near, the high-stakes race is on to see who will control the U.S. House of Representatives after midterm elections. Republicans currently carry the majority with 235 seats to the Democrats’ 193 (with seven vacant seats), but the tide could turn when voters cast their ballots this November.
Here in North County, the 49th District race carries particular importance for its swing potential.
Republican Darrell Issa, who represented the 48th District from 2001 to 2003 and the redistricted 49th since 2003, was narrowly re-elected in 2016 with 50.3 percent of votes to Doug Applegate’s 49.7 percent.
The much-maligned or much-revered Issa — depending on whom you talk to — announced his retirement in January, opening the way for a fresh face in office.
Sixteen candidates for the 49th District (four Democrats, eight Republicans and four of other or no party affiliation) have tossed their hats in the ring for what the L.A. Times has ranked the third most competitive contest in California for the U.S. House.
The candidates are Rocky Chavez (R), Kristin Gaspar (R), Diane Harkey (R), Brian Maryott (R), David Medway (R), Craig Nordal (R), Mike Schmitt (R), Joshua Schoonover (R), Doug Applegate (D), Sara Jacobs (D), Paul Kerr (D), Mike Levin (D), Danielle St. John (Green), Joshua Hancock (Libertarian), Jordan Mills (Peace & Freedom Party) and Robert Pendleton (No Party Preference).
On June 5, local voters will decide in the primaries which two candidates for the 49th will make the cut for the midterm election. Vote by mail-in ballot is currently available.
The two candidates with the highest number of votes, regardless of party, will advance. In other words, there’s the potential for two Republicans or two Democrats to win, which would guarantee the seat to either party — hence the high stakes in the bigger political picture of Congressional control.
A SurveyUSA poll conducted in April showed Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez in the lead, with 16 percent of likely voters supporting him, while Democrat Doug Applegate (who narrowly lost to Issa last election) came in second with 12 percent of likely voters’ support. Chavez and Applegate are both retired Marines in a district that surrounds Camp Pendleton and includes an estimated 46,000 veterans.
In the third spot was Democrat Mike Levin with 9 percent. The poll, however, had a margin of error of 5.3 percent percentage points, and 21 percent of surveyed voters were undecided, which means this race is still far from predictable.
Over time, the 49th District has transitioned from red to purple, meaning that what was once a predominantly Republican district has now come closer to a two-party balance. Issa, for example, won each of his re-elections by 15 or more percentage points until 2016, when he captured the seat by about half a percent, or a mere 1,621 votes.
Consisting of the northwestern part of San Diego County and the southern section of Orange County (stretching on the western boundary from Del Mar through Dana Point), registered voters in the 49th fall into the following categories: 38 percent Republican, 31 percent Democratic and 26 percent with no party registration. The main racial demographics are 62 percent Caucasian, 26 percent Latino, 7 percent Asian and 3 percent black.
Considered by multiple sources to be the wealthiest person currently in Congress, Issa with his deep pockets alone would have been a formidable opponent. His decision not to run for re-election helps the 16 candidates vying for his seat, although some of them have considerable wealth of their own.
Sara Jacobs, age 29 and a graduate of Torrey Pines High School, has received significant financial backing and media buzz. She is the granddaughter of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and raised $1.69 million for her campaign, including self-financing. Chavez, by contrast, raised $202,747, part of which he loaned to his campaign.
Applegate, who raised $792,498 in funding, considers himself a progressive Democrat. In an email correspondence with The Coast News, Applegate said he’d bring the values instilled him from his service with the Marines of “integrity, accountability and transparency” to office. When asked how his leadership style would differ from Issa’s, he wrote, “I will put the needs of the 49th and our country above any party.”
Were he to win in November, Applegate identified his top three goals as achieving single-payer health care, ending what he called “the worst income disparity in history” through measures such as increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and switching to 100 percent renewable energy by 2027.
Neither Rocky Chavez nor Diane Harkey, the second highest–ranking Republican in the SurveyUSA poll, responded to requests for comment.
The 49th District was redistricted in 2002 based on census results, making it relatively young in its current form. Since the redistricting, Issa has maintained control of the seat. Incredibly unpopular with some constituents, groups like Indivisible protested weekly outside his Vista office for about 65 weeks, which is believed to be the longest Congressional protest campaign in history. It remains to be seen whether Indivisible will realize its dream to “flip the 49th” to a Democrat.