In the past 72 hours, two of California’s longest-serving Republicans in Congress announced they are not seeking re-election this fall, scrambling state politics and dealing a blow to their party’s chances of hanging onto the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Nine-term Rep. Darrell Issa, of San Diego County, became the latest incumbent to announce his retirement Wednesday morning, issuing a statement that thanked his constituents and promised to “continue advocating on behalf of the causes that are most important to me, advancing public policy where I believe I can make a true and lasting difference.”
Issa’s statement pointedly did not rule out other political office, and his spokesman confirmed another run in 2018 was still on the table. The possibilities include a campaign for governor or a challenge to Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. There are also rumblings that Issa could launch a bid for fellow Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter’s seat in the neighboring 50th District.
Issa’s decision to vacate the 49th District seat follows on the heels of fellow Southern California Republican Ed Royce, of Orange County, who revealed Monday he, too, will leave Congress after 2018. Royce and Issa are two of seven Golden State Republicans that represent congressional districts Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and are among the House Republicans whom Democrats are targeting in the state.
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Their announcements, revealed just days apart, drew a jubilant response from Democrats, who say it shows just how terrified Republicans are of losing on what was once solid GOP turf.
“After passing a devastating tax scam and fighting to rip away healthcare from millions of families, California Republicans clearly see the writing on the wall and realize that their party and its priorities are toxic to their re-election chances in 2018,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Drew Godinich said in a statement.
Several liberal political groups also celebrated Issa and Royce’s departure as a bellwether for Republican incumbents nationwide. “Districts in California like Issa’s – where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump – will start the wave that will roll across the country,” predicted Eddie Kurtz, executive director of the Courage Campaign, a California-based progressive advocacy organization.
Republicans are insisting, however, they aren’t feeling a sense of doom and gloom.
While Orange County and the San Diego area have been trending more Democratic in recent years, they still have a Republican edge. In Issa’s 49th Congressional District, for example, Republican voter registration is at nearly 38 percent, compared to roughly 31 percent who are registered Democrats.
“Voting statistics showing registration and how people actually vote make it clear that (Royce and Issa’s) districts ... are tough targets for Democrats,” said strategist Darry Sragow, publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. “The only Democrat who has ever won in those districts is Hillary Clinton against Trump.”
Much will also depend on which Republicans emerge as leading candidates to replace Royce and Issa. University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter, shifted its 2018 campaign prediction for Issa’s seat from “Toss Up” to “Leans Democrat” shortly after the incumbent announced he wouldn’t run again. But Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, said Issa’s departure “could end up being a positive” for Republicans, depending on who emerges to run for the seat.
Already, former GOP Assemblywoman and current California Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey has announced she will launch a campaign. Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a retired Marine, also said he is running.
“Issa has baggage that the next candidate might not have,” said Kondik, alluding to the former businessman’s polarizing personality and history of clashes with Barack Obama’s administration. Issa chaired the House Oversight Committee when Obama was president, launching investigations into Benghazi and the Fast and Furious scandal at the Department of Justice. But Kondik also pointed out that Issa has two advantages – high name ID and personal wealth – that his would-be successors may lack.
Royce’s retirement is a bigger blow for Republicans, given his deep ties to the district and hefty campaign war chest. “Royce was probably going to have a pretty close race, but him leaving immediately makes this shoot up the list of top Democratic pickup opportunities,” said Kondik.
The nature of California’s primary system, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election, could also complicate the picture for Democrats looking to flip these congressional seats. Already, four Democrats are running for Issa’s seat, including retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, who came within a couple thousand votes of winning the seat in 2016. Royce also had a half-dozen Democratic challengers. Depending on how many Republicans end up running for the seats, the party could benefit from Democrats carving up their vote in the primary. Experts say there’s even a chance Republicans could advance two candidates to the general election.
A new field of candidates is already taking shape in both races. Royce has already endorsed former Assemblywoman Young Kim to succeed him in the 39th District, which encompasses parts of northern Orange County and eastern Los Angeles County. Several other local officials are looking at the race.
Of course, a crowded Republican field could also splinter the party vote in both the 49th and 39th districts, to Democrats’ advantage. An even more complicated scenario is possible if Issa decides to take on Hunter in the 50th District, where the GOP’s voter registration advantage offers much more favorable political terrain for Republicans. Hunter has been dogged by an ongoing FBI investigation into his use of campaign funds.
Overall, Republicans still face some daunting political realities in 2018, which are only heightened in deep blue California.
“Trump’s approval is historically low, and we know from past elections that that matters for House races,” said Eric McGhee, a research fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. “Midterms also tend to to be good for the party that does not hold the presidency.”
For those and other reasons, McGhee said, “This is shaping up to be a tough year for Republicans, in a way that’s consistent with a wave.” Depending on how big it is, that wave could wipe out not only the Republicans running to succeed Royce and Issa, but a number of California’s sitting House Republicans, as well.