By Jim Ellis
Sept. 30, 2019 — As expected, former California congressman, Darrell Issa (R), announced late last week that he will enter the state’s 50th District jungle primary against indicted Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), but the candidate situation is getting so convoluted it is difficult to “tell the players without a scorecard.”
Attending the announcement event with Issa last week were two other announced contenders for the seat, former Escondido mayor, Sam Abed, and current El Cajon mayor, Bill Wells. As part of the Issa declaration, both men announced that they will not become official candidates when the filing period opens and instead endorsed the former congressman.
Earlier in the month, Temecula City councilman and former mayor, Matt Rahn, also said he was leaving the race after being the first to announce. He attributed his decision to the political situation surrounding Rep. Hunter and the other candidates and potential candidates as simply being too convoluted.
Within the past two weeks, state Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) announced that he will run for the congressional seat, thus adding even more confusion to the political picture. Because California’s state Senate seats are bigger than congressional districts, Jones already represents about 88 percent of the 50th CD. Prior to winning his Senate seat in 2018 (meaning he does not risk the position to run for Congress because he has a four-year term), Jones served his allotted three terms in the state assembly and two different tours on the Santee City council.
Two other Republicans also remain in the race. Carl DeMaio is a former San Diego City councilman, ex-mayoral and congressional candidate. He came close to being elected mayor in a special election when then-incumbent and former congressman, Bob Filner (D), was forced to resign over a sexual harassment scandal in 2013. He then ran for the 52nd CD in 2014 and lost 52-48 percent to incumbent Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego). He is now a local radio talk show host.
Larry Wilske is a retired Navy SEAL who also ran for Congress in another district back in ‘14, losing to 53rd District Rep. Susan Davis (D-San Diego), 59-41 percent.
The Democrats, so far, are smartly fielding only one candidate, 2018 nominee Ammar Campa-Najjar, who fell to Rep. Hunter, 52-48 percent, after the congressman made an issue of him being the grandson of one of the Palestinian Black September group members who kidnapped and killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games. With Campa-Najjar potentially being the only 2020 Democratic candidate, however, his chances of qualifying for the general election are extremely strong. This means all of the Republicans are likely fighting over just one of the slots to qualify them into the November contest.
Hunter is now scheduled for trial on campaign finance violations on Jan. 14, after the judge in the case postponed the September court date at the congressman’s request. The California filing deadline is Dec. 6 for the March 3, 2020 primary, and he is expected to run again. The federal appellate court has agreed to hear Hunter’s motion contesting the lower court judge rejecting his dismissal argument. Therefore, the January court date could also be postponed.
Because the field is so crowded, Hunter’s hard-core base could be large enough to qualify him for second place irrespective of his legal trouble because so many Republican candidates would be splitting the anti-Hunter vote. If the congressman were to advance into the general and be found guilty before the election, thus forcing him out of Congress and possibly off the ballot, Republicans would be left with having to run a write-in campaign in a desperate and difficult attempt to save the seat.
Because the California system is now a qualifying election, where all parties participate, and no longer a partisan primary, the parties are not entitled to general election ballot position; therefore, Hunter’s legal situation means the Republicans could be risking a safe seat they can ill afford to lose.
Issa represented the adjacent 49th District for 18 years before announcing his retirement last year. He had a close election in 2016, winning by just over 1,600 votes against retired Marine Corps Col. Doug Applegate (D). While Applegate ran in the last cycle, he finished fourth in the jungle primary, thus failing to advance into the general election. The ultimate victor was now-freshman Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano).
The 50th District lies within two counties, San Diego and Orange, but almost 90 percent of the people live in the former local government entity. The seat contains most of San Diego’s rural area and some outer suburban population centers such as the cities of Escondido, San Marcos, Santee, and part of El Cajon. It is one of the few solidly Republican seats in the state, as evidenced in its electorate voting for Hunter despite him being under indictment and is one of only seven Republican-held seats from a field of 53 California districts.