The Race We All Missed

The June 7 ballots are almost all counted, and the results largely as expected. Mayor Faulconer won an outright majority, avoiding a November run-off, as did Councilmembers Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman and Councilmember-elect Chris Ward. Barbara Bry did slightly better than expected but will have to take on Ray Ellis in the general, where Ricardo Flores and Georgette Gomez will also face off. The biggest surprise may have been Mara Elliott’s second place finish in the race for City Attorney.

The biggest surprise in a race we were watching, that is.

Where northern San Diego County meets Orange County lies the 49th U.S. Congressional District, held by Rep. Darryl Issa since 2001 (when it was the 48th District). Issa has enjoyed a number of electoral advantages: the district leans Republican, he is the richest member of Congress, and he has a high profile within the party, having recently chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. After redistricting cut 6 points off the Republican voter advantage, Issa won re-election in 2012 and 2014 with 58 percent and 60 percent of the vote, respectively.

Given that history, few thought Retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate would be more than this year’s sacrificial lamb, losing big in June and by slightly less in November. Col. Applegate and voters had other ideas. Applegate got 45 percent of the primary vote, holding Issa to 51.5 percent and earning a spot in the November run-off.

Party leaders and pundits have started to take note. Political handicapper Larry Sabato has moved the race from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican.”, a progressive news and opinion site, has written how Issa, dubbed “America’s Worst Congressman,” can be beaten. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee released a poll showing a tied race, suggesting they may open up their coffers.

Congress is full of representatives and senators who cruised to victory after a primary wake-up call, but there are reasons this race could be different. Issa’s best excuse for his poor showing is that the Clinton/Sanders race energized Democrats more than Trump’s coronation brought out Republicans. That may be true, but it’s clear that things will be different come November. Trump remains unpopular in deep blue California, and #NeverTrump Republicans don’t even have a candidate in the Senate race to excite them. Add in a significant Latino population and the fact that President Obama narrowly won the district in 2008 and Applegate has a viable, if not smooth path to victory.

If Democrats have any hope of recapturing control of the House, they will need to win in places like the CA-49. If Trump loses to Clinton, and Issa loses to Applegate, Speaker Ryan just might lose his gavel.