WASHINGTON – A pair of high-profile Republican lawmakers with a combined 38 years of experience and a history of easy Election Day victories are fighting for their political lives as the 2016 campaign nears a close.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who led the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of emails while secretary of State, and Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), first elected in 1992 and the onetime chairman of the House Transportation Committee, find themselves engaged in challenges posed by relatively inexperienced Democrats that analysts now view as toss-ups.
The two lawmakers may see their futures linked to the GOP’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, whose own fortunes have sunk significantly over the past few weeks.
Issa, the best known of the two as a result of his flamboyant style, is seeking to return to Capitol Hill representing the 49th Congressional District, which covers much of the coastal area north of San Diego. But the Cook Political Report, which formerly determined that the district leans Republican, now sees it as a toss-up.
In the past, Issa, who made a fortune manufacturing car alarms and theft-deterrent devices before entering Congress, has won consecutive terms since 2002 by wide margins, never earning less than 58 percent. Since California went to the top-two primary system before the 2012 congressional elections, he hasn’t received less than 60 percent of the vote in the general election.
But this year, suddenly, he received less than 51 percent in the open primary that included Republicans and Democrats, setting the stage for a general election showdown against Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine Corps colonel and political neophyte.
“As it turns out, it’s possible to be the wealthiest member of Congress and still run a very poor campaign,” the Cook Report said in its assessment. “Issa, the former House Oversight chair, has cruised to reelection over a decade, but recently he’s been a high-profile Trump booster in a rapidly changing, well-educated district where Trump is toxic.”
Another analyst, the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, has also shifted its rating of the race but not to as substantial a degree. The contest in the 49th District, once viewed as safe Republican, has been moved to “leans Republican.”
Before endorsing Trump, Issa was a staunch supporter of Sen. Marco Rubio, of Florida, in the GOP presidential primary. He switched to Trump only after Rubio dropped out in the closing weeks of the campaign.
“The only way we are going to get our economy going again, the way Ronald Reagan did, is with someone like Donald Trump,” Issa said at a rally in San Diego.
The district has traditionally been solid Republican – presidential candidate Mitt Romney captured 52.4 percent of the vote in 2012 in a year when President Obama carried California by a substantial margin. But the demographics are slowly shifting. It is 61.5 percent white but 25.8 percent Latino.
It’s no secret Trump, who has issued comments that some consider derisive of Latinos and who favors building a wall along the southern border, is not popular with Mexican-Americans and those feelings may be bleeding down into the congressional race.
Issa remains a strong Trump supporter, even in wake of the release of a video from the television program Access Hollywood that showed him speaking in vulgar terms about women that some say boasted of sexual abuse. While Issa termed the remarks “inappropriate,” he did not follow several other Republicans in tight races and retract his endorsement.
Applegate has sought to take advantage of the situation, maintaining that by refusing to withdraw his support for Trump, Issa “is endorsing Trump’s war on women.” He also noted that Issa joined Trump’s team as a national security advisor on the same day that the Access Hollywood tape was released.
Issa, Applegate said, is “standing by Donald Trump’s values — bigotry, racism, and sexism. Is that the kind of person we want representing our district? I don’t think so.”
Issa carries one of the most high profiles in Congress even though he no longer chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. During his time in the chair he attracted significant attention as a result of hearings conducted on issues ranging from the emails controversy to the “Fast and Furious” gun-buying operation of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Democrats, particularly Rep. Elijah Cummings, of Maryland, the ranking member during his tenure, constantly criticized Issa for what they considered his heavy-handed tactics.
Issa has two distinct advantages – he remains widely known in the region while Applegate is saddled with a much lower profile. An attorney, Applegate remained in California after leaving active duty, serving instead as a reserve officer. He was called up to serve in Iraq.
And after all the changes, Republicans retain an eight-point voter registration advantage over Democrats in the 49th District.
While Issa faces an unexpected challenge, Mica may be the one in the hottest water and, once again, it appears Trump may be playing a role in Florida’s 7th Congressional District, which covers much of Orlando.
Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, cites Mica as the fifth most vulnerable congressional incumbent. He is being challenged by Democrat Stephanie Murphy who, like Applegate, is a first-time candidate. Born in Vietnam, Murphy is a former national security specialist in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense and now is an instructor of business and social entrepreneurship at Rollins College.
Democrats are touting a poll, commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and conducted by Global Strategy Group and Lester & Associates, showing Murphy with 48 percent and Mica with 45 percent.
“This 12-term Republican hasn’t faced a serious election in decades and Democrats didn’t even have a competitive challenger against him until late June,” Roll Call stated in its assessment. “But with Stephanie Murphy now in the race, Mica finds himself on this list for the first time because he’s facing re-election in a heavily redistricted seat that’s more Democratic and at least 40 percent new to him. Republicans are concerned that he hasn’t invested the time or resources to introduce himself to new voters, while Democrats are treating this like a top pickup opportunity.”