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Ex-Rep. Darrell Issa is not Duncan Hunter’s only problem in California primary

Radio host Carl DeMaio is also a factor in GOP battle for San Diego-area seat

Republican House candidate Carl DeMaio of California during a September interview. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Republican House candidate Carl DeMaio of California during a September interview. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

One’s a six-term congressman whose father held the seat for 28 years before him. Another served nine terms one district over. But a gay conservative talk radio host who doesn’t even live in the district is giving both a run for their money among Republicans in Southern California’s 50th District.

Former San Diego city councilman Carl DeMaio may have an early lead on incumbent GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is under indictment on corruption charges, and former Republican House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, who announced a comeback bid just nine months after retiring from the neighboring 49th District.

DeMaio has been thumping his chest over a poll he commissioned in June, before Issa announced he was running, showing him with higher favorability ratings than Issa and Hunter.

While internal campaign poll results should generally be taken with a grain of salt, DeMaio led all Republicans in a San Diego Union-Tribune/10News survey last week with 20 percent support, compared with 16 percent for Issa and 11 percent for Hunter, who is due to go on trial in January on charges he embezzled more than $250,000 from his campaign. DeMaio’s lead was within the poll’s 4.7- to 4.9-point margin of error, however.

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Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who lost to Hunter in the 2018 midterm by 3.4 percentage points and is running again in 2020, led all candidates with 31 percent support. California primaries choose the two top vote-getters, regardless of party, to face each other in the general election.

Three GOP strategists in California said DeMaio’s early lead over Issa and Hunter is no fluke.

“Carl, to his credit, has exceptionally high name ID, a little more than Darrell, in fact,” said one veteran GOP strategist whose own early polling found results similar to the Tribune-Union/10News survey. “That’s not surprising considering he’s a popular talk show host.”

The right kind of outsider?

DeMaio is pitching himself to voters as the GOP’s “reform candidate,” centering his messaging not just on attacks on the GOP establishment, but also on policy proposals to counter Democratic initiatives.

“I don’t just say ‘no’ to things that the Democrats are offering,” DeMaio told CQ Roll Call. “That’s what typical Republicans do. They’re no better than a potted plant.”

DeMaio became something of a conservative icon in California when he led a successful effort in 2018 to recall state Sen. Josh Newman for supporting a bill raising the state gas tax and vehicle fees to pay for transportation projects.

It was just the fifth successful recall of a state lawmaker since voters got that power in 1913, and the first since 1995. DeMaio said he got no support from the state GOP, but launched the drive because someone deserved “to lose their job.”

DeMaio also plans to use the primary in March as a testing ground for “ballot harvesting,” the practice legalized in California before the 2018 midterms that allows campaign workers and volunteers to collect and turn in absentee ballots.

The state GOP has given no guidance to its candidates on the most efficient way to legally collect and return ballots, DeMaio indicated, despite Democrats leveraging the tactic in the 2018 midterms to decimate Republicans in close races.

“I’m not waiting for the party to pull its head out of its you-know-what to figure out that we have a new way of doing elections out here,” DeMaio said. “I’m simply doing it, and then I will tell them what worked.”

DeMaio’s outsider message is one that worked in California’s 50th District for President Donald Trump, who carried it by 15 points in 2016.

But DeMaio is also an outsider in the literal sense of the word: He does not live in the district, though he told CQ Roll Call his home is a short distance from the boundary. Issa does not lie in the 50th either, though the former congressman stressed at a news conference last Thursday that he owns property there.

DeMaio may be well known in the area because he ran for Congress before — in a different San Diego district. In 2014, he narrowly lost to incumbent Democrat Scott Peters in the 52nd District. At the time, DeMaio blamed the loss on a former campaign staffer who accused him of sexual harassment. The staffer ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about receiving a threatening email that he himself had actually sent.

Issa retired before the 2018 midterms after it became clear his 49th District seat was one of the GOP’s most vulnerable in Southern California. Democrat Mike Levin won that seat by nearly 13 points. 

Hunter and Campa-Najjar have already indicated they will try to portray Issa and DeMaio as opportunistic carpetbaggers.

“Two of the leading candidates … can’t even vote for themselves,” Campa-Najjar said.

Not the ‘gay candidate’

Voters are rugged and God-fearing in California’s 50th District.

This isn’t just San Diego County — this is East San Diego County, with rodeos and mega churches, not bonfires on the beach.

“We’re taking ATVs all over the district. No joke,” Campa-Najjar said about what it’s like to campaign across the 50th’s craggy, desertous expanse. “We’re off-roading to get to voters.”

Marine Corps base Camp Pendleton is next door in the 49th District, and its large military presence, which tends to vote conservative, bleeds into the 50th.

GOP strategists are split on whether DeMaio’s sexual orientation will affect his standing with Republican primary voters, with one saying it’s the “ultimate question” in the primary while another said it would not be a motivating factor either way.

While Hunter, Issa and other Republican candidates may be restrained from thrusting the issue into the public domain, it could be fertile ground for outside religious groups that espouse conservative family values.

In a reversal from his 2014 campaign in the more coastal, liberal-leaning 52nd District, DeMaio is not advertising his homosexuality.

That doesn’t mean he’s actively avoiding questions about it — just that it’s not a topic of focus. Plus, DeMaio said, boiling down people in the district to the single issue of opposition to gay marriage discredits their complexity as voters.

”Voters know me not as the gay guy, but the reformer — comma — who happens to be gay,” he said.

While DeMaio has been married since 2015 to the man with whom he was in a relationship during his 2014 race, he said people should not be “bullying” religious groups for disagreeing with his stance on the matter.

“Marriage equality is fundamentally fair as a matter of public law, but at the same time you shouldn’t judge others who don’t agree with that,” DeMaio said.

Money and the race to embrace Trump

The primary for the 50th District is already gearing up to be one of the most expensive in the country, with four established candidates having general election experience and pulling in millions of dollars combined.

DeMaio raised more than $1.3 million from more than 20,000 individual contributors in just the eight weeks since he filed to run, his campaign announced Thursday. That is an impressive amount, GOP operatives in the district said, though they questioned where the next tranche of donors will come from and whether he can coax Washington insiders to his side, away from Issa.

Campa-Najjar raised $550,000 in the third quarter, with an average contribution of $25.

Hunter has the advantage of 40 years of his own and his father’s name recognition in the district, though it is unclear whether his criminal indictment has irreparably tarnished that name.

Hunter had nearly $300,000 in his account at the end of the second quarter. His campaign did not respond to inquiries about his third-quarter numbers.

Issa, who built a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars selling car alarms to major vehicle manufacturers, was long the wealthiest member of Congress and is expected to write his own campaign a massive kick-starter check for the 2020 cycle.

Over his nine-term House career, Issa spent more than $11 million of his own money on his campaigns, according to a data analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

DeMaio, Issa and Hunter have rushed to embrace Trump, who remains popular in the district. DeMaio has made border security a pillar of his messaging so far, and Hunter, a former Marine, has built his political identity on tough border politics and unflagging vocal support of military personnel.

After senators objected to aspects of his background check at a confirmation hearing that was ultimately postponed, Issa dropped the pursuit of his confirmation to a Trump administration post last month. He wrote to Trump in a letter that running for Congress “will allow me to do even more to help you enact your agenda.”

Hunter’s campaign is stressing that as an incumbent, he alone can help protect Trump from impeachment.

“No one else is in a position to help the president and protect him,” said Hunter spokesman Mike Harrison.

The race will likely boil down to who can push his pro-Trump message the loudest and most often, GOP strategists said, and Issa, with his Washington fundraising connections and limitless personal pocketbook, has distinct advantages.

“Carl could say everything Darrell could say, but if Darrell chooses to stroke a check — which he will — he can out-yell Carl by 3-1, 4-1, 5-1,” the veteran Republican strategist said.

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