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Campaign To Flip The 49th Congressional District Off To An Early Start

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, is shown in this undated photo.

Credit: Courtesy of Rep. Darrell Issa

Above: Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, is shown in this undated photo.

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.

UPDATE: 7:15 A.M., Dec. 20, 2017

This week marks one year since protesters first staged rallies outside Rep. Darrell Issa’s 49th Congressional District office in Vista. The campaigns battling over this district are already reaching out to voters, a year before the 2018 elections.

The 49th has been named one of the most vulnerable Republican districts in the nation. It stretches from Dana Point in Orange County down the San Diego County coast to La Jolla.

Nowhere else in the nation have protesters shown up this consistently. Every Tuesday morning the sidewalk outside Issa’s district office is filled with people chanting and carrying signs, calling for Issa to be ousted and President Trump to be impeached.

RELATED: Tom Steyer Brings Impeachment Campaign To Anti-Issa Protest In Vista

The rallies began last December, right after the November election, when Issa, a nine-term incumbent, was nearly unseated by a little-known Democrat, Doug Applegate.

Issa won the district of nearly 400,000 registered voters by fewer than 2,000 votes.

Ellen Montanari of the group Indivisible has led the rallies and said she is amazed at how the passion of the early demonstrations has persisted.

“I thought it was going to evaporate after 'Resist Trump Tuesdays,'” she said, “I thought it was going to evaporate when the summer hit, I thought it would evaporate once the holidays hit, and I’m not seeing anything evaporating.”

Weekly face off

More than 100 protesters line one side of the street from 10 to 11 a.m. every week, and face off with a handful of Issa supporters who line the other side of the street.

This level of grassroots activism is unusual a year before the election. But Tony Krvaric, chair of the San Diego Republican Party, is skeptical that the rallies signal danger for Issa.

“It makes some people feel good,” he said, “but at the end of the day, just standing around and yelling doesn’t get the job done. That said, we’re motivated, we’re organized as well. And whatever seats they could not win in 2016, I seriously doubt they’re going to win in 2018. I would argue people are being paid to show up, so you have a bit of this astro-turf stuff going on, so I don’t know actually how deep this stuff goes.”

Bill Rider of American Combat Veterans of War is one of the protesters. He laughed at the idea he was being paid to be there.

"I would take the money, but I’m not getting paid, certainly no,” he said. “I’m here on my own free time and I think that it’s important — this is called democracy for those people that don’t understand it."

Dominic Nguyen said the rallies have become a focal point for people with all kinds of agendas.

“There are advocates for climate change, for choice, for criminal justice reform,” Nguyen said, “as well as generally trying to change the political narrative to more community based, as well as well as getting rid of the corporate interests in our government.”

Montanari said neither she nor the protesters are paid to show up at the rallies.

Photo by Alison St John

Cipriano Vargas instructs canvassers during a training exercise in Solana Beach for the Flip the 49th campaign, Dec. 2, 2017.

Flip the 49th

But the campaign to unseat Issa has registered an independent expenditure committee — known as a Super PAC — called Flip the 49th, which is raising money. Montanari said it is not “dark money."

"You can go online and look at the filings and see who has donated and how much," she said.

Flip the 49th has declared fundraising totals of more than $400,000 so far — 40 percent raised locally in San Diego and Orange counties. Donors include Irwin Jacobs of Qualcomm and actress Jane Fonda. Instead of spending it all on TV ads, Flip the 49th is investing in neighborhood organizing.

On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen volunteers showed up for a canvassing workshop at a park in Solana Beach. Their leader was Cipriano Vargas, a paid community organizer for Flip the 49th.

Community organizing

“To date we have trained more than 200 neighborhood leaders all across the 49th,” he told the group. “We have contacted with phone banks and knocking on doors more than 7,000 individuals in the 49th, and we have a goal of getting to 70,000. That’s an aggressive goal, it’s an ambitious goal but I think we can do it.”

It is unusual to have this level of community organizing happening a year before the election, especially when the campaign has not yet chosen a candidate. That will not happen until after the primary election in June.

Four Democrats have jumped into the race to oust Issa: Doug Applegate, a former Marine colonel who ran in 2016, Mike Levin, an orange county environmental attorney, Paul Kerr a Rancho Santa Fe real estate investor and Sara Jacobs, a former Hilary Clinton foreign policy adviser and granddaughter of Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs.

But Vargas said this campaign is not about a particular candidate — it is about knocking on doors and listening to what voters have to say about the issues.

Republican super PACs

Republican super PACs are also gearing up for the battle for the 49th. Republican political consultant Jason Roe works for two national campaign committees: the American Action Network, a 501(c)(4), and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC. Roe said they are also shifting their focus.

“What’s different from what you see typically from super PACs that are really mostly focused on television ads first and foremost, and maybe digital advertising, and once in while mail,” Roe said. “I think what you’re seeing now is much more of a focus on the grass roots.”

Roe said while the local Republican party faithful will mobilize to educate the electorate, he will focus on new technology to reach voters.

“What we used to do door-to-door: identifying voters, knocking on doors, talking to friends, all those kinds of things, you can now do with a couple of clicks,” Roe said.

Knocking on doors

Flip the 49th volunteer Michelle Burrascano is doing it the old fashioned way — knocking on doors.

“The vast majority of people are really willing and anxious to talk,” she said. "They are frustrated by the way things are going politically and they are just desperate to share their frustrations. I have no doubt we’ll be able to do this for a year because the frustration is not going to go away.”

Issa is one of the wealthiest men in congress. The Flip the 49th campaign knows it is unlikely to raise as much money as the incumbent and the independent super PACs supporting him. They are banking on voter frustration and an early start on grassroots campaigning to make a change.

Last midterm election, voter turnout was less than 50 percent, but with all the money and energy building in the 49th, campaigners on both sides hope many more voters will get engaged in this key congressional race in 2018.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that the American Action Network is not a super PAC, but is a 501(c)(4). A previous version of this story also listed Mark Levin as a candidate. His name is Mike Levin. The story has been modified to reflect that.


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