It was only two years ago when Democrats first grasped they had a shot at reshuffling Orange County’s congressional landscape, when the party came within 1,621 votes of flipping the House district held by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, an effort seen as improbable at the time.
But the race’s slim margins – the narrowest of any federal contest in the country in 2016 – inspired a torrent of Democrats to run for seats in the region’s Republican strongholds. Two years later, more than $121 million has been spent this cycle to sway voters in four Orange County GOP-held House seats. All are among the most competitive, consequential, and closely-watched in the nation.
And the 49th Congressional District, the seat that started it all, is central to that fight.
Rather than face a difficult re-election campaign, Issa, a nine-term incumbent, announced in January he’d retire from his seat, which spans wealthy, predominately-white portions of southern Orange and northern San Diego counties. That spurred a 16-candidate scrum and, after the June primary, a two-person ballot featuring Republican Board of Equalization Chairwoman Diane Harkey and Democratic environmental attorney Mike Levin.
Which way CA 49 voters go could help give – or deny – Democrats one of the 23 seats they need nationally to take control of the House of Representatives
Harkey, 67, a former assemblywoman who was endorsed by Issa in the primary, hitched her candidacy to the gas-tax repeal effort as a regional director for the Proposition 6 campaign. She’s running as a pro-business, anti-tax candidate, crediting the GOP tax bill for the nation’s low unemployment rate and saying she wants to make the stimulative effects of the GOP cuts permanent. She supports building some version of a border wall and opposes California’s sanctuary state law. She has wavered on her views on climate change but tends to oppose environmental regulation.
Harkey is also the only California GOP House candidate to be endorsed by Trump, which could harm her in a district where the president has a 61 percent disapproval rating, according to a recent Los Angeles Times poll. Harkey has tip-toed accordingly. While she commends Trump for economy, she isn’t listing his endorsement on her campaign website and has said she’s willing to vote against the GOP if she disagrees with the party’s stance.
“In the Legislature I took on the Governor, Treasurer, High Speed Rail Authority, and my own party, and I will continue to if it means protecting my constituents,” Harkey said.
Levin, 40, the former executive director of the Orange County Democratic Party, is a first-time candidate who has touted his role as director of governmental affairs for a clean-energy company. He sees climate change as a substantial threat to the planet and wants to make CA-49 a hub of the sustainable energy industry.
Levin supports passing Medicare for All, creating a $15 federal minimum wage, banning assault weapons and bump stocks and implementing universal background checks on gun sales. He also criticizes the GOP tax plan for disproportionately helping the wealthy, growing the deficit by $1.9 trillion over a decade, and capping state and local income tax deductions which could make some in the district pay more. He wants to revert to the tax rules in place before Trump took office.
“I believe that it’s more important than ever to hold Washington accountable, protect the truth, and put country over party, an example historically set by Democrats and Republicans alike,” Levin said.
Of the seven GOP-held House districts in California that in 2016 voted for Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump, polls show that CA-49 is most likely to flip Democratic this cycle, thanks in part to liberal activists in the area who for two years have fostered grassroots efforts to flip the seat.
Despite Republicans’ nearly 5-percentage-point voter registration advantage in the seat the data web site FiveThirtyEight gives Levin a 95 percent chance of winning. The district is also the only Republican congressional seat in California where Democratic candidates cumulatively gained more than half the vote in the primary.
Those deficits have caused national Republicans to stop spending on the seat in recent months. Since the primary, Democratic PACs have spent $4.4 million on the race. Republicans contributed only $21,000.
Source: Orange County Register