Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) will not seek reelection, he announced Wednesday — the latest sign of a growing Democratic wave in this year’s midterm elections.
Issa is the second endangered California Republican to call it quits this week. Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also said he does not plan to seek reelection.
“Throughout my service, I worked hard and never lost sight of the people our government is supposed to serve,” Issa said in a statement. “Yet with the support of my family, I have decided that I will not seek reelection in California’s 49th District.”
Issa, 64, was first elected to Congress in 2000. After the 2010 elections, he had become chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he dedicated himself to investigating the Obama administration zealously. The Issa-led “Fast and Furious” investigation eventually led to an unprecedented House contempt vote against then-Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012. He was a key player in the GOP probe into the 2012 Benghazi attack, and Issa got national headlines for his role in investigating the IRS’ treatment of conservative nonprofit groups.
While these probes led to much praise from the right, they made Issa a target for the left. And the political environment in his Southern California district, once a reliably red seat based in Orange and San Diego counties, shifted rapidly in recent years: Issa barely survived the 2016 election — even stooping to using outgoing President Barack Obama’s image in a campaign flyer — while Hillary Clinton carried the traditionally Republican seat in the presidential election by 7 points. Democrats had targeted Issa for defeat in 2018.
“Two retirements in the heart of the Orange County, behind the Orange Curtain, that could be hugely motivating right now for Democrats who are trying to retake Congress,” said Paul Mitchell, a consultant with Political Data, the voter data firm used by both Republicans and Democrats in California. “It’s like getting a small victory before halftime because this will lead fundraising emails around the country in the next 24 hours.”
Issa grew up in Cleveland, the son of an X-ray technician. He dropped out of high school, then entered the U.S. Army. After leaving the service, Issa attended college.
In the 1980s, Issa put all his money — $7,000 — into a car-alarm business. He eventually became CEO of Directed Electronics and moved it to California, leading to “become the nation’s largest manufacturer of vehicle anti-theft devices, including the highly successful Viper system,” according to Issa’s official bio. Issa’s estimated net worth is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
By the early 1990s, Issa had become active in California politics. He ran for Senate in 1998, dropping nearly $10 million in an unsuccessful challenge to then-Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). When a House seat came open in the San Diego area the following cycle, Issa used his own money to help him win a crowded GOP primary, and he easily won the general election in 2000. He won reelection by comfortable, if not overwhelming, margins until 2016’s near-death experience.
For Republicans, holding Issa’s seat — along with the other six GOP-held districts Clinton carried in 2016 — will be expensive. Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer announced this week that he plans to spend $30 million on flipping House seats, singling out Issa as a top target.
Issa had already drawn four well-funded Democratic challengers: Doug Applegate, a veteran and attorney who lost to Issa in 2016; Sara Jacobs, a former Obama administration official endorsed by the powerful group EMILY’s List; Paul Kerr, a real estate investor who outraised Issa last quarter; and Mike Levin, an attorney.
Several Republican candidates have already started testing the waters for a run. Assemblyman Bill Brough said he’s “considering running,” while local Republican operatives floated several other potential names, including Diane Harkey, a member of the California Board of Equalization; state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez; San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar; and Scott Baugh, a former Orange County GOP chairman.
All the candidates will run together in the June 5 primary, with the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election in November, regardless of party.
Republicans are hopeful about their chances to maintain the seat, citing the glut of well-funded Democratic candidates and internal polling showing generic candidates from each party running neck-and-neck.
“In the 49th District, Democrats are locked in what is fast becoming one of the bloodiest primaries in America,” said Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), the chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm. “While Democrats fight with each other, Republicans will focus on fighting Democrats — and that’s how we plan to win.”
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