California's Issa, once Obama's foil, wants back in Congress
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Republican Darrell Issa, once the richest member of Congress, retired in 2018 before Democrats flipped his district along with six other California House seats. Now he's trying to resurrect his political career in the neighboring district — one of Southern California's last conservative strongholds.
The San Diego-area 50th District lost its representative when Republican Duncan Hunter pleaded guilty to a corruption charge and quit earlier this year. Hunter was under indictment in 2018 when he won a close race against a political newcomer.
Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar now is trying again against Issa, an ally of President Donald Trump who spent 18 years in the House. The former Obama administration public affairs officer has tacked to the right this time.
To show he will represent all constituents, Campa-Najjar did an interview this month with the founder of a right-wing group formed after violence erupted last spring at a San Diego-area protest against police brutality. Campa-Najjar stunned Democrats when he said he'd yet to decide whether he'd vote for Joe Biden.
Campa-Najjar was forced to do damage control, saying he meant to convey that any presidential candidate must earn his vote. He then voted early and provided a photo showing his ballot was marked for Biden.
Campa-Najjar has shown well enough in polls that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included him among 33 candidates targeted for help to flip districts.
Political analysts see the seat as likely staying in GOP hands but there are encouraging signs for Democrats. The district’s Republican voter registration edge that helped Trump carry it by 15 points in 2016 has dropped by 30%.
Issa's campaign leads Campa-Najjar in overall contributions with $6.5 million but that includes $2.6 million in direct contributions from the car alarm magnate. An additional $4.2 million has come from his personal loans.
Campa-Najjar, who has a small consulting firm, has given no money to his campaign that has raised $4.8 million overall, according to the third-quarter report from the Federal Election Commission, covering up to Sept. 30.
Campa-Najjar has outpaced Issa in individual contributions, garnering $4.6 million — $1 million more than his opponent.
But Issa's campaign has spent $9.8 million on the race overshadowing Campa-Najjar's $3.5 million. Each candidate has $1.2 million in cash on hand.
Home to many military veterans, the district includes San Diego suburbs and farming communities and part of Riverside County. For almost 40 years, a Hunter represented the area — Duncan Hunter Sr. served 28 years and was followed by his son, a combat Marine who held the seat for 11 years.
Hunter Sr., still widely revered in the district, endorsed Issa as did Trump who called Campa-Najjar part of the “Radical Left" in a tweet.
Campa-Najjar has touted his Christian faith and gun ownership to appeal to conservative voters. He's noted his roots in the district and labeled Issa a carpetbagger. Issa owns a home in the district and lived there with his 88-year-old mother when he entered the race, then moved out when the coronavirus pandemic hit to protect her.
The San Diego Union-Tribune, the region’s biggest newspaper, has endorsed Campa-Najjar.
Limited by the pandemic, both candidates to reach voters did in-person, online interviews with Justin Haskins, founder of the group Defend East County.
During his Oct. 7 appearance, Campa-Najjar smoked a cigar and sipped whisky while sitting close to Haskins. Neither wore a mask. In addition to the Biden comment, Campa-Najjar said if he were a senator he probably would vote for conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. He told The Associated Press he meant she will probably get the job with a Republican Senate.
Haskins started his organization after two banks were burned in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa during the May 31 protest. Its stated purpose is to protect the region from “rioting, looting and fires." The group's Facebook page says hateful or racist speech won't be tolerated, though some on the site have posted racist comments and applauded violence against Black Lives Matter demonstrators.
In an online video during the summer, Haskins called Black Lives Matter supporters “terrorists" and urged group members to turn up at their protests, which led to confrontations. The clashes were widely covered by local media, though Campa-Najjar posted on Twitter that when he agreed to the interview he was unaware the group's members “made overt threats to people’s lives."
In Issa's interview with Haskins, neither wore a mask and he complimented the host, saying “you guys were pretty important as law and order was breaking down.”
“When I look at Black Lives Matter or I look at Antifa, I see two things: People who are willing to take away your rights and your freedom and justice for you by using violence and destruction,” Issa said.
Issa defended Trump when asked about the president's response at last month's debate to a question about whether he condemns white supremacy and specifically the Proud Boys. Trump told the group to “stand back and stand by,” words Issa said were taken out of context. Issa said he and Trump condemn white supremacy.
“Anyone who is legitimately threatened and has no choice but to be where they are either because they live there or because they are defending their own property should be allowed to stand by," he said.
Issa, 66, previously represented the 49th District that straddles San Diego and Orange counties. He became a GOP favorite when he headed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 to 2015 and launched several investigations against the Obama administration.
But during that time his district became more Democratic and he barley won reelection in 2016. Two years later, he left office, angering fellow Republicans who believed the move allowed Democrats to easily take the seat.
Issa last winter ran a ferocious primary campaign in a crowded field of Republicans seeking the 50th seat. He faced backlash for an advertisement that referenced GOP opponent Carl DeMaio being gay.
Issa said the ad's headlines came from media outlets and were meant to show the conservative radio talk show host's failures on issues.
Unlike Hunter in 2018, Issa has not tried to exploit Campa-Najjar’s lineage. Hunter ran a controversial ad suggesting Campa-Najjar was an Islamic terrorist because his paternal grandfather helped plan the deadly attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Issa said he disagreed with Hunter’s tactic: “I don’t think Ammar is responsible for what happened 16 years before he was born."
Campa-Najjar was raised by his Mexican-American mother.