‘Jungle Primary’ Makes 49th Congressional District Race Unpredictable
Thursday, May 3, 2018
Photo by KPBS Staff
The 49th Congressional District, currently held by Darrell Issa, was initially seen as one of the most vulnerable Republican seats in the nation.
But with Issa’s decision in January not to run again, and a different brand of Republican leading in the polls, all bets are off about what will happen in California’s “jungle” — or top two finishers regardless of party — June primary.
Issa was notable for inspiring the nation's longest running congressional protest demonstrations outside his office, and Democrats like Ellen Montanari of the group "Indivisible" were determined to "flip the 49th."
"(Issa’s) divisive, he’s condescending, he doesn’t listen to anyone but his donors," Montanari said at one of the group's final rallies. "He’s been known to say to people, 'You’re a Democrat, I don’t need to talk to you.'"
But now, with Issa no longer running for re-election, the leading candidate in the race is a different kind of Republican: California Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a moderate who compromised with Gov. Jerry Brown on cap and trade. Chavez has aligned himself with a group called "New Way California," that aims to rebrand the Republican Party. In spite of spending far less than any other candidate on his campaign, he’s leading the polls.
"People know me," Chavez said at a recent forum. "I've been here in the community working for nearly 20 years. It's not about money, it's not about endorsements, it’s about votes of the people."
Ron Nehring, a former chair of the California Republican Party, said being a moderate is not why Chavez is ahead.
“I believe that Assemblyman Rocky Chavez success so far is 100 percent attributable to his Marine background, and to his being an assemblyman,” Nehring said, “and 0.0 percent has anything to do with which flavor of Republican he happens to be.”
The 49th Congressional District includes Camp Pendleton, and an estimated 46,000 veterans are among the voters, so it’s no coincidence that two of the front-runners in recent polls are former Marine colonels: Chavez and Democrat Doug Applegate. Neither man has the endorsement of their party: the Republican Party and the departing Issa endorsed Diane Harkey, a former state assemblywoman from Orange County.
At a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters in Vista, Harkey said she would represent California if she is elected, distancing herself from Brown’s combative relationship with Trump administration policies.
“It is my goal to bring some rational conversation to California so we don’t look like such an outlier,” she said, “and we’re not an outlier: there’s a lot of good people that are just normal like everybody else across the nation, but we’re looked at as though we’re nuts because we are constantly tweaking.”
Republican Kristin Gaspar, the new chair of San Diego’s County Board of Supervisors, has not shown up for public forums. Instead, she’s thrown in her lot with Trump’s policies: making a splash with her leadership role when the County Supervisors voted to support Trump’s lawsuit against California’s sanctuary city laws.
Brian Maryott, mayor pro tem of San Juan Capistrano, contributed $400,000 to his own campaign but is struggling to stand out from the crowd of eight Republicans in the race.
None of the four Democratic candidates has held elected office, but Montanari said they are all viable, and it’s tough for Democrats to choose whom to back in the June Primary.
“I personally would be happy if any one of them makes it in,” she said, “it doesn’t matter to me who it is, I just want to make sure one of them does.”
The Democrat candidate with the highest name recognition, Doug Applegate, was the man who almost defeated 16-year incumbent Issa in 2016. But Applegate has a record that could prove fatal in this age of the “Me Too” movement: restraining orders during a messy divorce and custody battle. Applegate is undeterred.
"I'm excited about the ‘Me Too’ movement," he said when asked how he would deal with accusations of misconduct if he is the Democratic candidate in November. "As the father of two daughters, and also from the standpoint that the whole concept of the 'Me Too' movement is 'believe the woman.' The mother of my two oldest children and my former spouse, Priscilla, gave a very forceful statement that was not drafted by me, it was drafted by her — that was an indication of strong support.”
The Democratic candidate with the highest profile endorsements is Mike Levin. His first TV ad features a powerful Democratic congressman, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, who says Levin has the professionalism and capability to help “flip the House.”
Levin touts a progressive poll that shows he would beat Republican Rocky Chavez if they face off in November. In a recent KOCT debate, Levin, an Orange County environmental attorney, questioned Chavez’ positions aggressively on his A rating with the National Rifle Association, and his F rating with the California League of Conservation Voters.
“If you get elected to Congress, are you going to stand with the gun lobby and the big polluters?" Levin asked Chavez, "or are you going to stand for gun violence prevention and the environment?”
Chavez responded that he has not received money from the NRA but stands firmly behind the Second Amendment. Chavez said his record is clear on supporting sustainable energy.
Voters are already seeing TV ads and mailers flood their mailboxes from two more Democrats with large personal fortunes: Paul Kerr and Sara Jacobs. Kerr is a real estate investor who built his wealth from humble beginnings.
"More so than any other candidate in this race, I get it; I face those same struggles,” he said at a forum in Oceanside. "In fact, I believe I’m the only candidate that can truly look you in the eye and say I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through."
Jacobs, 29, said if elected, she would be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
“We’ve had lots of people my age or younger serving in Congress, they just happen to be men,” she said during a KPBS interview. "I think this year voters are looking at a broken Washington and voters want a new approach."
Sixteen candidates will each take a slice of the voting pie in the 49th Congressional District: eight Republicans, four Democrats, a member of the Peace and FreedomParty, a Green Party candidate, a Libertarian and one candidate who has described himself as representing the K9 Party ("dogs being more sensible than people").
The district has more Republicans than Democrats registered to vote, but as Republican analyst Nehring observed, anything could happen in the primary election.
"Unfortunately, California’s jungle primary — it can lead to all kinds of unpredictable outcomes," Nehring said. "In some cases where it’s two Republicans in November, other cases where it's two Democrats — so it has a great potential to yield unpredictable results."
The 49th Congressional District, currently held by Rep. Darrell Issa, was initially seen as one of the most vulnerable Republican seats in the nation. But that changed with Issa’s decision to not run again.
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