Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Vista, is in the toughest race of his 16-year political career. In the June primary, a political unknown — retired Marine colonel and attorney Doug Applegate -- came within striking distance. Many are blaming Issa's support of Donald Trump.
Issa issued a statement over the weekend, reacting to the Access Hollywood video that depicted the GOP nominee making lewd sexual comments. While other Republicans in tight races pulled their support, Issa did not. In an emailed statement, Issa said "he found these comments and behavior wholly inappropriate, offensive and unfitting of anyone seeking to lead our nation. There is never a time or place where it's appropriate to make jokes about sexual assault.”
In the past, the 49th Congressional District, which straddles San Diego and Orange counties, has proved to be reliably Republican.
During his time in Washington, D.C., Issa has built a reputation as a firebrand, digging into the controversies on Capitol Hill, like Hillary Clinton’s email server. The former chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform was at the center of the congressional investigations into the “Fast and Furious” gun-buying operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Issa also wants to be known for his slogan, “working for you,” which is on his new yard signs — his first yard signs in 16 years in office.
“I’m telling people 'I’m working for you, in Washington, on those global issues, on those national issues,' ” Issa said during a campaign event at a park in Orange County.
He said he wants to be known for local projects like sand replenishment for Solana Beach and Encinitas.
Since California went to the top-two primary before the 2012 congressional election, Issa hadn’t received less than 60 percent of the vote in June.
Not this time. Against his Democratic challenger, Doug Applegate, Issa received 51 percent.
Issa’s surprise poor showing has been traced to his embrace of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
“The only way we are going to get our economy going again, the way Ronald Reagan did, is with someone like Donald Trump,” Issa said before a crowd at a Trump rally in San Diego.
Issa originally campaigned for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. When Rubio dropped out and Trump came to the San Diego Convention Center on May 27, the congressman gave a full-throated endorsement of the business mogul — comparing him to Reagan. This was less than two weeks before the California primary.
Around the same time, on the other side of the aisle, at places like UC San Diego, thousands of young supporters were still energized by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I think everyone was surprised,” said Mary Latibashvili, of UCSD College Democrats, talking about Applegate’s surprise showing in the primary. “Because Bernie was on the ballot, I think that drove a lot of students to vote.”
Applegate admits he didn’t really campaign in the primary.
“Honestly, there wasn’t a lot of campaigning on either side in the primary,” Applegate said. “So I think what you can take away from that is a baseline and now is when it really gets interesting.”
He’s working hard now. When he’s not campaigning, he’s stumping for cash. And he's getting help. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted the 49th Congressional District, to try and flip this traditionally red district blue.
Applegate won’t say how much he has raised, but in the last month he spent a week in Washington. Before a campaign stop outside the VA hospital in La Jolla, he had just come back from Seattle.
Rather than Trump’s unpopularity in California, Applegate blames Issa for his poor showing.
“I think it’s the hand-built negatives of Darrell Issa himself,” Applegate said. “He doesn’t come back to talk to people. He certainly doesn’t come back and talk to vets.”
Applegate is still an unknown. After he left active duty as a Marine in the 1980s, he remained in Southern California. He was a reserve officer and an attorney when he was called up in 2006 to serve in Iraq around Ramadi. As an attorney he represented cops and criminals. In 2008, he was part of a legal team that defended a former Marine sergeant from Riverside, who was the first soldier charged with war crimes in civilian court.
Applegate said he hadn’t considered running for office before this election.
“I’ve enjoyed being a Marine officer, no matter what I was doing. In good places and bad places. I’ve enjoyed practicing law,” Applegate said. “This was one of those things where there was a junction between everything I had done in my life up to this point. I think I’m better prepared than most people sitting on the hill when they first got there.”
The general election has heated up quickly.
Issa put out a mailer highlighting Applegate’s divorce in the early 2000s, where a judge issued two temporary restraining orders against him. Applegate’s ex-wife released a statement supporting Applegate’s campaign. An Applegate ad featured a 2011 New York Times story that accused Issa — often considered the richest member of Congress — of steering congressional earmarks to benefit some of his real estate holdings. Issa threatened a lawsuit.
“The falsehoods there, and then him, turning it into an outright lie,” Issa said. “You know, that’s what this campaign is about for him. For me, I’m going to win by double digits. I’m going to win by double digits running on a record of what I’ve done in Washington. And I am proud of holding two administrations accountable.”
Republicans still hold more than an 8-point advantage in the number of voters registered in the 49th Congressional District, which includes Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, Oceanside, Vista and San Clemente.
The question is — now that both sides are actively campaigning — who will come out to vote in November?
California Counts is a collaboration of KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio to report on the 2016 election. The coverage focuses on major issues and solicits diverse voices on what's important to the future of California.