Douglas Applegate knew he might get an earful when he started knocking on doors in this solidly Republican town, once home to Richard Nixon’s Western White House.
“You’re a Democrat? You’re in the wrong place,” snapped one woman, holding her dog at bay before she sent Applegate on his way.
That may have been true for generations in the coastal enclaves of California’s 49th Congressional District, but this once-impenetrable GOP stronghold is now in play. Applegate, a retired Marine colonel and Iraq war veteran, has Republican stalwart Rep. Darrell Issa sweating his bid for reelection.
Issa had trounced his opponents in eight straight elections, winning by an average margin of almost 30 percentage points. In the June primary, Issa finished ahead of Applegate, who is new to politics, by a mere 5.3 percentage points.
As of June 30, Applegate had spent less than $50,000 on his campaign. Issa, the richest member of Congress, spent more than $700,000.
“Let’s be clear. We basically did nothing in the primary,” Applegate said during a recent interview at his Solana Beach campaign office. “It was his negatives. That was what the primary was all about.”
Their rematch in the November general election has Democrats dreaming of unseating a GOP congressman who has been a relentless thorn in the side of the Obama administration.
While chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, a term that ended in 2015, Issa led investigations into the Benghazi attack, the Internal Revenue Service scandal, the botched "Fast and Furious" gun sting and other actions by the Obama administration, often without finding direct proof of wrongdoing by the White House.
Applegate, who now has the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and California Democratic Party, is trying to paint Issa as a Washington insider who grew more concerned about his national image than his constituents back home.
One sign of how tight the race has become is a recent flurry of accusations about underhanded politics. Last week, the Issa campaign pounced on reports that Applegate had been accused of harassing, stalking and threatening his former wife during their divorce proceedings more than a decade ago.
"The disturbing information in these public records [raises] serious questions that Doug Applegate hasn't come close to answering about his personal temperament, treatment of women and fitness for office," Issa campaign spokesman Jonathan Wilcox said in a statement.
Applegate, 62, called the allegations a “desperate and politically motivated attack” orchestrated by the Issa campaign. Applegate also issued a statement from his former wife, who described the accusations as “uninformed personal attacks against our family,” adding that she supports her former spouse’s bid for Congress.
Issa has also had some brushes with the law. As a young man, he was charged twice with car theft, although both cases were later dismissed. He also was charged twice with carrying a concealed weapon.
When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times this month, Issa brushed aside speculation that he might be vulnerable. Still, he acknowledged being more active in his district since his close call in the June primary.
Last month, he rolled up his sleeves to man a cash register at an Oceanside gas station. He also held a hearing in San Clemente about problems associated with sober-living homes and potential federal legislation giving local governments more control over where they can be put in their communities. This month in Oceanside, Issa praised Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of Orange for her work on national defense issues and also backed her in California’s U.S. Senate race, a contest between two Democrats.
“I’m running on my record. I’ll probably spend a little more time publicizing the accomplishments of passing major legislation and working on issues across the aisle,” Issa said. “That’s probably appropriate. I haven’t done that in years. But other than explaining what I’ve been doing representing the people of this district, I don’t expect to do much else.”
Issa, 62, also said his image as a Republican attack dog who never tires of taking on the Obama administration was off the mark, saying he was just as aggressive with President George W. Bush. Issa said his committee was critical of the dysfunction of the federal Minerals Management Service under Bush after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the $700-billion bank bailout initiative known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
“I’ve always been willing to take on my own party or the other party,” Issa said. “Congress is not supposed to be a lapdog for the administration.”
Republican political consultant Jennifer Jacobs said Issa was doing “God’s work” when he headed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and, despite his liberal critics, she believes the voters in his district will reward him with another easy reelection victory.
“Everything he was doing was to hold the administration accountable. He took a lot of arrows,” Jacobs said.
But Paty Newman of Fallbrook, a former member of the San Diego County Republican Party’s central committee, said Issa should be worried. Newman said that she once served as an Issa delegate to a California Republican Party convention, and that the congressman has been absent from his district for way too long — and people have noticed.
“I think he’s petrified,” Newman said. “They’re finally sick of all of these guys who’ve never done anything except for themselves and power.”
The 49th Congressional District stretches along the California coast from Dana Point to La Jolla, with San Diego County accounting for about three-quarters of the population and Orange County the remainder. Republicans have an 8 percentage point edge over Democrats in voter registration in the district, but that advantage has been slowly eroding — in part because of the district’s growing Latino population.
Applegate’s military background could make up for the Democrats’ voter registration deficit in an area that includes the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, thousands of defense industry workers and a substantial veteran population, said Democratic political consultant Laura Fink of San Diego.
However, that might be tempered by the fact that Issa served two stints in the Army as an enlistee and then an officer.
Issa’s strong political allegiance with Donald Trump also may cut into his support among Republicans and independents who are wary of the controversial GOP presidential nominee, Fink said. With Trump as the top Republican on the ballot, GOP turnout may also be suppressed, she said.
“In any campaign, you have to disqualify the incumbent,” Fink said. “This is the weapon they are going to use to disqualify him.”
Applegate grew up outside Dayton, Ohio, where his father was a security officer at a propeller factory and his mother worked at an insurance firm. He joined the Marines after graduating from Arizona State University and, during his 32 years in the service, completed combat tours in Baghdad and Fallujah.
He also served as a military lawyer for about three decades. After he retired from the Marines in 2006, he worked as a general practice trial attorney throughout Southern California. Applegate, who is twice divorced and has two children, lives in San Clemente with his girlfriend and his 17-year-old daughter.
“I really got frustrated that 95% of Congress had never been in a combat zone,” Applegate said about his decision to run for office. “They make the decision to send our children and grandchildren, our sons and daughters, in harm’s way. I don’t think they ask the right questions.”
Applegate’s politics are solidly Democratic. He supports a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally, as well as abortion rights for women, gay rights and the Affordable Care Act.
He has also vowed to support legislation to combat climate change and increase renewable energy, a major policy difference he has with Issa. In the past, Issa has said that there is a scientific consensus that climate change is a “myth.”
“He’s still a climate change denier. I come from the party that believes in science,” Applegate said.
Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar, a Republican who is running for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, said Republicans who live along the coast tend to be a different breed from those in other areas. They’re generally more moderate and not as impressed by politicians who make a partisan splash in Washington, she said.
“He’s definitely one who is bold in his leadership style. He’s definitely not a fence walker,” Gaspar said of Issa. “He’s got to demonstrate to the local community he serves that legislation he’s working on directly impacts them here.”
Gaspar voted for Trump in the primary but has since become disillusioned by his campaign. She didn’t respond when asked whether she’ll back Issa in November.