With Rep. Darrell Issa out, can Democrats agree on a candidate to flip the 49th district?

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Southern California is emerging as a midterm battleground in flipping the House from red to blue. There are at least 10 districts held by vulnerable Republicans that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee thinks can be turned.

One of them is the Rep. Darrell Issa’s district, the 49th, which emcompasses north San Diego and south Orange Counties. In mid-January, Rep. Issa announced he would not run for re-election.

Historically conservative, this district is seeing a demographic shift that could help Democrats. Home to Camp Pendleton, it has big military presence; and it has a growing Latino community. The district runs along the coast down to La Jolla, a stretch that is home to affluent families who traditionally vote Republican for economic reasons, but don’t like President Trump.

As soon as President Trump was inaugurated, the 49th saw a groundswell of community activism to oust Issa and “flip the 49th.” Citizens joined local Indivisible groups and community organizations. They protested, phone banked and canvassed homes. Issa’s announcement that he was going to give up his seat felt like vindication for all their work and they celebrated.

Just as they had done every week since Trump was inaugurated, a group of protesters held court in front of Issa’s office building. They chanted, sang, and held up signs, one of which read “Issa’s gone, Now dump Trump.”

“The fact that Issa resigned is proof positive of the power of the people in the district to make their voices heard and to make change in Washington. And that’s actually pretty exciting and pretty extraordinary,” said Terra Lawson-Remer, chair of Flip the 49th!, the umbrella group of grassroots activists and Democratic candidates.

But the candidate pool has gotten crowded. There are five Democratic candidates in the race, and five Republicans.

The Democrats:

  • Doug Applegate, a progressive Democrat and Marine colonel, who lost to Issa by 1600 votes back in 2016.
  • Mike Levin, environmental lawyer.
  • Sara Jacobs, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and is backed by Emily’s List. Her grandfather Irwin Jacobs founded Qualcomm, the telecom giant based in San Diego.
  • Christina Prejean, lawyer and Air Force veteran.
  • Paul Kerr, real estate investor.

The Republicans:

  • State Assemblyman Rocky Chavez has emerged as the candidate most feared by Democratic activists.
  • Chavez is Latino, a former Marine Colonel, and is seen as a moderate. He was one of the Republicans who voted to extend California’s cap and trade program.
  • Diane Harkey is another big name. She’s an elected member of the State Board of Equalization, a former Assemblywoman who’s been endorsed by Congressman Issa.
  • Kristin Gaspar, San Diego County Supervisor.
  • Brian Maryott, San Juan Capistrano Mayor Pro Tem.
  • Joshua Schoonover, a patent lawyer.

California uses a top-two primary system, which means the the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, move onto the general election. Constituents have described the race as as a “circular firing squad.” Democrats worry about a scenario in which two Republicans get onto the November ballot.

“There are there are schisms and it’s troubling,” said Lawson-Remer. “One of the main missions of Flip the 49th! is to be that unifying force, to remind everyone and keep everyone on track that we’re there to flip the 49th. And we will back, and enthusiastically support, whoever the candidate is and whoever the nominee is on the Democratic side.”

Lawson-Remer said that they plan on using opinion research and talking to voters to figure out which candidate is most viable and could stand up against a Republican.

It’s not just grassroots organizers working on the ground to flip the district. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has a west coast office in Irvine and has had a volunteer on the ground specifically focused on the Issa’s district since early 2017, training volunteers and channeling the grassroots activism.

Western Press Secretary with the DCCC, Andrew Godinich, was frank about the organization’s involvement. “We believe that it’s better to be on the side of more grassroots energy and momentum,” he said. “But the DCCC reserves the right to get involved in these races, if necessary, to ensure that we elect a Democrat come the fall.”

This post has been updated to reflect the number of districts being targeted by Democrats.