In the throes of a contentious multimillion-dollar battle to win reelection, Congressman Darrell Issa is showing voters a less familiar side.
The Republican’s attack-dog reputation was built while chairman of the House Oversight Committee, when he launched high-profile investigations into President Barack Obama’s Administration and regularly criticized the White House.
But with Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel, mounting a formidable challenge, Issa is trumpeting his bipartisan accomplishments. That’s included sending out campaign mailers praising Obama for signing a victims’ rights bill the congressman supported.
“He’s trying to come off as more moderate,” said Jodi Balma, a political scientist at Fullerton College who called Issa one of the most partisan members of Congress. “For voters who haven’t been following him or only know the caricature, this could get them to take a second look.”
It’s the first time Issa has had a serious reelection fight in the district, which straddles the Orange-San Diego County line and includes the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. In his seven previous reelection bids, he had at least a 30-percentage point advantage over the next highest finisher in the primary and at least 16 points in the general.
The primary results this year?
Issa got 51 percent, Applegate got 46 percent. The Cook Political Report and at least two other handicappers are calling the general election a toss up, and the unexpectedly close race is attracting national attention.
Buoying Applegate’s primary showing was a strong turnout by Democratic voters in a district that is shifting from red to purple. The GOP edge is 8 percent, down from 11 percent at the beginning of the year, with 25 percent of voters unaffiliated with any party.
In a normal election, those voter registration numbers would still be enough for the Republican incumbent to have a clear path to reelection, according to Paul Mitchell of Political Data Inc., which analyzes voter registration, demographics and turnout.
But Donald Trump is turning convention on its ear.
“It could be competitive this year given the dynamic of the election,” Mitchell said.
In one scenario, anti-Trump sentiment would spur more Democrats and independents to turn out and vote for Hillary Clinton. And Republicans unhappy with the controversial GOP nominee would sit out the presidential race – a possibility Democrats across the country are trying to leverage.
Applegate is among those betting on that disenchantment with Trump. His campaign is making sure voters in the district know about Issa’s endorsement of Trump and Issa’s appointment to Trump’s national security advisory committee.
Issa, meanwhile, is gambling that Applegate’s progressive political agenda won’t go over big with the district’s voters. The incumbent’s campaign is attacking Applegate – who voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary – for supporting a carbon tax, a federal minimum wage hike to $15 an hour and what has been dubbed a “Robin Hood tax” that would levy a 0.5 percent tax on the sale of stocks.
The two candidates’ endorsements also distinguish them. Issa is backed by the National Rifle Association and the California Pro-Life Council while Applegate is supported by Obama and Planned Parenthood.
Applegate, 62, was born in Dayton, Ohio to a mother who ran a convenience store and a father who was a security officer at a GM plant.
While a college junior, he joined the Marine Corps. He went on to get a B.S. in economics and a law degree at Arizona State, and served active duty in the Marines from 1974 to 1984. After launching a private practice focusing on personal injury and consumer law, he served as a Marine reserve – including a stint in Iraq – before retiring as a colonel in 2006.
The political novice says he decided to run for office because his military experience provides particular insight into national defense, veterans issues and armed intervention abroad.
“I thought I had a unique skill set,” he said, noting that there are few Congress members with extensive military experience. He said some of Issa’s policy positions – and Issa‘s “Washington insider” status – also contributed to his decision to throw his hat in the ring.
Applegate’s own positions run well left of center. The San Clemente resident supports Medicare for all, repealing the president’s authorization to use force against the Islamic State and breaking up financial institutions deemed “too big to fail” during the last financial crisis.
He supports all 32 bills and resolutions advocated by Progressive Democrats of America in their candidate questionnaire, closely mirroring Bernie Sanders’ agenda.
“These have always been my principles,” said the lifelong Democrat, adding that he is unafraid to stray from the more moderate Democratic platform. “I would defend these core values as putting country ahead of party.”
Issa campaign mailers have taken aim at Applegate for a host of issues, including two restraining orders and an order to surrender his firearms, the result of his then-wife accusing him of threatening her in the early 2000s.
Applegate said the accusations came in the heat of a complicated divorce.
“The court process played out very quickly,” he said. “Those orders were lifted and we went on to raise two great kids even though we were no longer married.”
Applegate’s ex-wife, Priscilla Greco, issued a statement calling the Issa mailer “disrespectful and uninformed,” and saying she is supporting Applegate’s congressional bid.
Issa, 62, was born in Cleveland, where his father sold GM trucks. He dropped out of high school to join the Army at 17, served two years, earned a GED and then a B.A. in business from Siena Heights University in Michigan. He attended college on an ROTC scholarship where he served 4 years as an officer. He then 10 years in the reserves, attaining the rank of captain.
In 1972 and again in 1980, he was arrested for auto theft, with charges dropped both times. In 1972, he was also charged with having a concealed weapon in his car. He pleaded guilty to having an unregistered gun.
After leaving the Army, he invested in an electronics company and eventually took control of an affiliated car alarm manufacturer.
The car alarm manufacturer, Steal Stopper, and Issa‘s subsequent car alarm business, Directed Electronics, laid the foundation of his fortune. The Capitol Hill publication Roll Call ranks him as the wealthiest member of Congress, worth $255 million. His campaign says he sold the last of those businesses in 1999.
The Vista resident’s first bid at elected office was a 1998 run for U.S. Senate, in which he spent $10 million of his own money but lost in the Republican primary to state Treasurer Matt Fong, who spent $3 million.
He fared better in his 2000 bid to replace retiring Rep. Ron Packard, R-Carlsbad, winning the primary by 11 percentage points and the general election by 33 points.
In 2003, Issa spent nearly $2 million for the signature-gathering to qualify the recall of Gov. Gray Davis for the ballot. Issa had planned to run for the seat but changed his mind after Arnold Schwarzenegger entered the race.
Asked what work on Capitol Hill he was most proud of, Issa cited three bipartisan bills he had a leadership role on. One was a pilot program to increase the expertise of judges in patent litigation. Another streamlined the Freedom of Information Act procedures to make information more readily available. The third, the DATA Act, is intended to make information on federal spending more accessible.
Issa was the second most effective Republican in the House in the 2013-2014 session, according to an academic study published on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. It based the rankings on success in moving bills and how substantial those bills were.
Issa served as chairman of the House Oversight Committee from 2011 to 2015, and said 23 bills from the committee were signed into law by Obama.
But he was best known for his scrutiny of the Obama Administration, including investigations into the IRS, the Benghazi attack and the “Fast and Furious” federal gunrunning sting. During his term as chairman, he was regularly criticized by Democrats, who accused him of wasting time and money on partisan attacks.
Issa says there was no partisanship involved, but did acknowledge that Obama attracted particular attention.
“He has not been the open and transparent president he said he’d be,” Issa said.
Obama weighs in
The candidates part ways on immigration, with Applegate favoring a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally and supporting Obama’s executive orders granting temporary legal status to many of those without documents.
Issa has opposed most of those executive orders and would prefer to deal with people in the country illegally by tightening sanctions on employers and establishing a guest-worker program for those jobs that are primarily filled by immigrants.
But Issa also differs with Trump on the issue, saying tighter border security is not enough to stem the flow of people in the country without documents. Issa cites statistics that 40 percent of those immigrants are here on expired visas and would be in the country regardless of border security.
There are other flaws with the border security approach, even if there’s a massive wall, Issa said.
“Any wall is like the hull of a ship,” he said. “I don’t know any ship that doesn’t have a bilge pump.”
He said that’s just one instance where he differs with Trump. He campaigned for Sen. Marco Rubio in the GOP primary and said Trump wasn’t his second or third choice either, but was preferable to Clinton. He has condemned Trump’s lewd “open mic” comments as having “no place in American politics.”
Meanwhile, Issa’s effort to publicize common ground he shares with Obama got messy fast.
Within days of mailing the flier praising the president’s support for the victims rights bill, Obama mocked Issa and called the tactic “shameless.”
“As far as I can tell ... Issa's primary contribution to the United States Congress has been to obstruct and to waste taxpayer dollars on trumped-up investigations that have led nowhere,” he said at a La Jolla fundraiser Oct. 23. “And this is now a guy who, because poll numbers are bad, has sent out brochures with my picture on them touting his cooperation on issues with me.”
And Issa kicked back, issuing a statement that said, “I’m disappointed but not surprised that the president, in a political speech, continues to deny accountability for the serious scandals that happened under his watch...”
Issa, Applegate and their allies had combined to spend $3.9 million on the race through September, with Capitol Hill Democrats helping to compensate for Issa’s fundraising advantage. But if the stars – and campaign strategies – align to carry Applegate to victory, it could be a short stint in office, according to Mitchell, the Political Data analyst.
He said the district is probably a decade away from Democrats becoming an equal force, and that more typical election dynamics are likely to prevail when the congressional seat is on the ballot in 2018.
“If Applegate does win, he could be the most vulnerable member of Congress,” Mitchell said.
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