What You Need to Know in the Free-for-all Race to Replace Darrell Issa

1 min
Rep. Darrell Issa (R) listens during a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing. After serving eight terms, Issa announced in January that he would not run again. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The 49th Congressional District of California spans parts of coastal Orange and San Diego Counties, from La Jolla in the South up to Dana Point in the North.

The district has long been considered a GOP stronghold. But Hillary Clinton won here in 2016, and it's now considered to be trending purple.

That makes the race to replace Darrell Issa -- an eight-term GOP congressman who announced in January that he wouldn't run again -- a very competitive one.

Candidate Forum

Four of the 16 candidates on the primary ballot took the stage at Capo Beach Church in Capistrano Beach on Monday night. The forum was organized by a group of non-partisan, non-profit organizations: Capo Cares of Dana Point, Advocates for Responsible Treatment of San Juan Capistrano and the Coalition to Save San Clemente.

Of the candidates who spoke at the forum, two are Republicans, and two are Democrats.


The links below go to pages on their positions and donors on the nonpartisan website Voter's Edge and to their campaign websites:

Rocky Chavez (R)
Voters Edge info
Campaign site

Brian Maryott (R)
Voters Edge info
Campaign site

Doug Applegate (D)
Voters Edge info
Campaign site

Mike Levin (D)
Voters Edge info
Campaign site

Read about the rest of the field on Voter's Edge >>

What Happened to the Incumbent?

In January, GOP Congressman Darrell Issa announced he would not run again. He'd served eight terms. Readers with good memories might remember that it was Issa, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress, who got the recall of Gov. Gray Davis going. He bowed out once fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, and ultimate victor, entered the race.

Rep. Darrell Issa and then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger shake hands September 26, 2003 in Santa Monica.
Rep. Darrell Issa and then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger shake hands September 26, 2003 in Santa Monica. (David McNew/Getty Images)

Prior to Issa's decision to leave Congress, activists had spent months showing up to weekly demonstrations outside his Vista district offices. Those protests even caused a mild controversy when Issa appeared on the roof to take a photo of the protesters.

The Race to Replace Issa

After months of campaigning and jockeying for position, the race to represent California’s 49th district still looks like a free-for-all.

Even before Issa’s retirement, the seat was considered a toss-up. Registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats in the district, but Hillary Clinton carried the top of the ticket in 2016.

That year, Issa barely survived a bruising race. He defeated his opponent, attorney and Marine Corps veteran Doug Applegate, by less than 1 percent, or fewer than 1,700 votes.

This time around, Issa had been identified as one of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents.

Does That Mean a Democrat Will Win?

Just over a month away from California’s June 5 primary election, the 49th is far from a sure pickup for Democrats. But it is key in their quest to win 24 Republican seats nationwide and flip the House of Representatives.

Party faithful on both sides of the aisle are fretting. Energy and enthusiasm for a “blue wave” on the left and the lure of a rare open seat on the right has attracted 16 hopefuls -- including four Democrats and eight Republicans. It will be a long primary ballot.

And that means both Democrats and Republicans risk fracturing the vote. California has a top-two primary system, and that could result in either two Democrats or two Republicans to pick from come November.

How Would That Work?

California allows the two highest vote-getters to pass through to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. In a field stacked with viable candidates, fellow Republicans could splinter their party’s vote and allow two Democrats to rise to the top. Likewise, too many options for Democrats may spread liberal votes too thinly, leading to a GOP-only race in the fall.

The Cook Political Report has placed CA-49 in the “Lean Democratic” column.

But liberal activists and party operatives believe without a culling of the field, there’s a good chance no Democrat survives to face off in November.

A poll released in February by the left-leaning group Flip the 49th showed two Republicans -- Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and state Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey -- edging out the Democratic field, led by Doug Applegate and environmental Attorney Mike Levin.

Democratic voters got little clarity from the state party’s convention in February. Levin narrowly failed to garner 60 percent of the delegate vote needed to get the official Democratic endorsement.

What the Voters Said

At Monday's forum, where the crowd leaned left, Nicholas Walker of San Clemente said he's worried too many Democrats on the ballot is a losing proposition. Those now polling lower, he says, should drop out.

“I think it’s too many, we need to narrow it down," he said. "If you’re one or two percent, there’s no way possible, mathematically, that you can stay in a race. You have to concede."

D.J. Logemann of San Juan Capistrano said he's always been an independent and he still hadn't heard anything compelling.

"I think the most important issue is access to elected officials. Like town halls," Logemann said. "This environment is very partisan. Everyone is more interested in helping themselves, not their constituents.”

What the Polls Say

GOP voters seem to be coalescing somewhat more distinctly around a frontrunner. In a SurveyUSA Poll conducted in early April, Republican Chavez leads returning challenger Applegate, garnering 16 percent support to 12 percent for the Democrat. The rest of the field failed to break 10 percent. And there was a big caveat: Nearly one in five polled said they were undecided.

Chavez, who like Applegate also served in the Marine Corps, has become a target for some critics from the right. Their objection? His support for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s centrist New Way California group. They also criticize his vote last summer to help extend Gov. Jerry Brown’s cap-and-trade system.

San Juan Capistrano City Councilman Brian Maryott lagged in the April 12 poll, coming in at 5 percent, tying San Diego County Supervisor and GOP candidate Kristin Gaspar.

Democrats are out-fundraising Republicans in the race. Four Democrats, including former non-profit CEO Sara Jacobs and real estate investor Paul Kerr, each have more money in the bank than the highest-raising Republican.