LAKESIDE, Calif. – Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter's resignation from Congress last month after pleading guilty to a corruption charge unleashed a GOP slugfest over the vacancy in one of the party's few remaining House seats in California.
Most of the action in the 50th District involves two Republican heavyweights: Darrell Issa, who is seeking a return to Congress after leaving his seat in a neighboring district two years ago, and Carl DeMaio, a well-known San Diego radio host and political commentator.
Both have questioned the other's loyalty to President Donald Trump and called the other a liar. Issa recently faced backlash, including from some Republican supporters, for an advertisement that included references to headlines noting the sexual orientation of DeMaio, who is gay. Critics said it amounted to gay-baiting.
The headlines were from media outlets, and Issa said the ad was meant to draw attention to DeMaio's failures on issues.
“I think it’s an illustration of how civil wars are the nastiest wars," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
The 50th is an outlier in California, a strongly conservative district in a state where Republicans hold just six of 53 House seats. And for almost 40 years, a Hunter represented the area east of San Diego — 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, has endorsed Issa. His son faces sentencing March 17.
Under California election rules, the top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. There are four Republicans running, and it's expected the votes among them will be divided such that the only Democrat in the field, 31-year-old former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar, will advance and face one of them in November. Campa-Najjar lost a close race to Hunter in 2018.
It's been an expensive battle for Issa and DeMaio. Issa has spent about $2.7 million and has about $1.4 million cash on hand, while DeMaio has spent about $2 million and had more than $724,000 cash on hand by the end of February, according to the Federal Election Commission.
Issa, a car alarm magnate, was for years the wealthiest member of Congress. He built a national reputation and became a GOP darling when he chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and emerged as the chief congressional antagonist to then-President Barack Obama.
After narrowly winning reelection in 2016, Issa, 66, decided not to run again two years later in the seaside 49th District where Democrats had been gaining ground for years. Democrat Mike Levin easily won the open seat, part of a Democratic sweep of seven GOP seats in California.
DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman, said Issa “fled” the 49th, but Issa said he retired to accept Trump's nomination to be director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. Issa's confirmation languished in the Senate for a year. He then withdrew and in September entered the race for Hunter's seat.
The animosity between Issa and DeMaio, 45, was evident from the start. On the day Issa announced his candidacy DeMaio held a dueling news conference yards away.
The candidates share similar agendas that support Trump's stands on issues such as stricter immigration enforcement and gun rights. But each has tried to make voters believe the other is not truly in step with the president, who has not endorsed either candidate.
A new Issa TV ad alleges DeMaio encouraged people to vote Libertarian in the 2016 election and called Trump a “pig” on his radio show. DeMaio responded with his own ad pointing out that Issa in 2017 supported calling a special prosecutor to investigate alleged ties between between Trump’s campaign and Russia. The ad calls Issa “another Mitt Romney, lying to you, betraying President Trump."
Romney, a Utah senator, was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump in the Senate impeachment trial.
The San Diego Union-Tribune, the largest local newspaper, is fed up with both candidates. It said a "general election without this pair’s vitriol would be a blessing," and endorsed Republican state Sen. Brian Jones and Campa-Najjar, saying both are more focused on serving the district where they have long lived. Issa and DeMaio don't live in the district.
Rae Moore, a Democratic voter, hopes the infighting will help flip the district. She said DeMaio and Issa have had their time in politics.
“We need regular, normal people," said Moore, a lifelong resident of Lakeside, a Western-style town that welcomes people with a sign topped by a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
Leslie Lacher, 63, said keeping the district in Republican hands is paramount, and she believes Issa is the best choice. She noted DeMaio fell short in his bids in 2012 for San Diego mayor and in 2014 for the 52nd Congressional District, and led a failed effort to repeal a state gas tax increase in 2018.
“I want somebody strong," Lacher said. “I want somebody who can win."
Brittany Markham, 32, said the district needs DeMaio. The stay-at-home mom described him as an "outsider kinda like Trump who can get things done."
Hair stylist Danielle Newton, 43, said the slugfest has her head spinning about who would be best to replace Hunter, a former schoolmate she always supported. She liked how Hunter and his father were involved in the community.
“I'd like to think we have to have someone out there who still cares as much as the Hunters did," she said.