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Rating Update: Race for Issa’s Open Seat Remains a Toss-Up for Now

California’s 49th District rejected Trump in 2016

California Rep. Darrell Issa is not be seeking a tenth term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Rep. Darrell Issa is not be seeking a tenth term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A new day, a new Republican retirement, but a similar story. On Wednesday, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa announced he will not seek re-election to his Southern California district, leaving Republicans to defend another open seat that Hillary Clinton carried.

Similar to California’s 39th District, where GOP Rep. Ed Royce just announced his retirement, Issa’s 49th District has in recent history usually voted for Republican candidates but rejected Donald Trump for president in 2016. Voters there also nearly threw out Issa, who had become known for his Benghazi investigations.

The scope of the Democratic takeover opportunity depends on whether Clinton’s performance is the new normal or whether 2016 was an aberration.

For example, Clinton carried the district 51 percent to 43 percent in 2016, but in 2012, Romney took it 52 percent to 46 percent and Republican Elizabeth Emken outperformed Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein 53 percent to 47 percent, even though she lost statewide by 25 points.

There is a case to be made that Issa’s retirement might improve GOP chances of holding the seat.

The nine-term congressman had become an increasingly polarizing, partisan national figure and narrowly won re-election 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent in 2016. Republicans now have an opportunity to nominate someone with a cleaner slate. And even though Issa is one of the wealthiest members of Congress and could self-fund any race, he didn’t choose to leverage that advantage to the fullest extent last cycle.

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Potential GOP candidates include California Board of Equalization Chairwoman Diane Harkey (the former state assemblywoman told OC Daily she plans to run), state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, and San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, although the mayor has been mentioned for offices higher than Congress.

Democrats have multiple candidates, including environmental lawyer Mike Levin, 2016 nominee and Marine veteran Doug Applegate, Navy veteran and real estate investor Paul Kerr, and Sara Jacobs, who worked on policy for Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

The filing deadline is March 9 ahead of the June 5 top-two primary.

Under normal conditions, Republicans may even have an edge to hold the open seat. But, as we mentioned yesterday when Royce retired, with a staggering deficit in the national generic ballot (Democrats have a 48 percent to 37 percent lead, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average), it’s tough to give the GOP any sort of edge in this political environment.

For now, we’re leaving the Inside Elections rating of the 49th District race as a Toss-up. If Republicans don’t get a good candidate or should evidence emerge of a national wave overwhelming the district, the rating will shift further toward the Democrats. And this is the type of seat and race the minority party has to win in order to take the House.

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