Whoa. On Wednesday, longtime GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, the wealthiest member of Congress, unexpectedly announced he would retire. His departure is not entirely surprising, though: Issa won re-election last cycle by just a 50.3-49.7 margin, making his the closest House race in the country, and a big part of the reason was because California's 49th District, based in the affluent and well-educated northern San Diego suburbs, reacted to Donald Trump very poorly. Voters there had supported Mitt Romney 52-46 in 2012 but gave Hillary Clinton a 51-43 win in 2016. As a result, the 49th was already a top Democratic target for 2018, and it will remain so following this latest development.
Issa was first elected in 2000, and until 2016, he’d never faced a close re-election fight. But Issa long ago earned the ire of progressives across the nation, dating back to when he bankrolled the successful effort to recall California Gov. Grey Davis in 2003. Issa had planned to run in the crowded recall campaign himself, but after Arnold Schwarzenegger jumped in and sucked up the oxygen on the GOP side, Issa tearfully announced he wouldn't join the race.
But while Issa may not have wanted to stick around in Congress, he made the most of his post by using his position as chair of the House Oversight Committee—and millions in taxpayer dollars—to launch bogus investigation after bogus investigation against the Obama administration, bragging he wanted "seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks." Issa’s rap sheet in fact goes on for days—click here for the full readout.
In 2016, though, political changes in Issa's district and his notorious reputation finally caused him trouble at home. While retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate entered the race against him with little fanfare and started with little money, Issa only wound up edging him 51-46 in the June top-two primary, often a predictor of November’s results.
With Issa looking unexpectedly vulnerable, national Democratic groups consolidated behind Applegate, and Issa-haters everywhere gladly contributed to his campaign. Issa did not react kindly, even suing Applegate in an effort to intimidate him into taking an attack ad down. (Weirdly, Issa's complaint took the time to reference the fact that we here at Daily Kos Elections wrote up this ad. So … thanks for reading?) Applegate, true to his Marine Corps heritage, didn’t back down, and after the election, a judge ordered Issa to pay $45,000 in legal fees to his opponent.
After Issa’s narrow escape, Democrats very much planned to make him a target again. Applegate quickly jumped in for another try, as did environmental attorney Mike Levin, real estate investor Paul Kerr, and former Hillary Clinton presidential campaign policy adviser Sara Jacobs.
While Issa was always going to be in serious danger this cycle, it’s perversely possible the GOP could have a better shot without him—something you rarely say when an incumbent retires. On the one hand, it's almost always harder to beat a scandal-free incumbent than win an open seat, and Issa was one politician who never needed to worry about having enough money to win.
However, Issa's close call in 2016 showed he wasn’t exactly beloved at home, so the GOP might benefit from a fresh face in an area that usually favors Republicans down the ballot. That said, Issa just helped turbocharge the narrative that at-risk Republican members of Congress are flying for the exits, and any potential successor will be starting from scratch in an effort to hold this seat.
The candidate filing deadline is in mid-March. Under California law, all the candidates will run on one ballot, and the two top vote-getters will advance to November, regardless of party.