In the race to replace Duncan Hunter, Trump has become the defining factor

President Trump tours the border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego County on March 13, 2018. At right is Rodney Scott, chief patrol agent of the San Diego Sector of the Border Patrol.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)
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Even before Rep. Duncan D. Hunter resigned from Congress last month, it was no secret that the race to replace him was going to get brutal, especially on the Republican side of the aisle.

After all, the top Republican front-runners, former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio and former Rep. Darrell Issa, are two of San Diego County’s most well-known firebrands.

What has intrigued political observers though is the messages the two have latched onto to attack each other. DeMaio and Issa have traded pointed barbs for months in TV ads, tweets, mailers and forums — all about who would be the strongest and most ardent supporter of President Trump if elected to Congress.


Trump “is the Republican Party,” said Carl Luna, professor of political science at San Diego Mesa College, so that tactic is expected in the race for California’s 50th Congressional District, which includes parts of east and inland north San Diego County and a southern portion of Riverside County. Currently there are 161,184 registered Republicans in the district compared with 115,581 registered Democrats.

“In the reddest district in the county, you have to be the Trumpiest of Trumps to rally the most support in a divided field,” Luna said, adding the question for right-leaning voters in the 50th may be what type of Trump candidate they want.

“DeMaio is running as Trump the Populist, [an] anti-elite, anti-establishment candidate, blasting Issa for being a professional politician and part of the Washington establishment swamp,” Luna said. “Issa is running as Trump the Social Conservative, stressing Issa’s pro-life, pro-conservative causes (and) voting record, while dredging up any and all comments DeMaio made in the past which weren’t 100% pro-life.”

‘Traitors’ to Trump

From the day Issa entered the race in September it was clear there was no love lost between the two leading Republicans.

As Issa held a kickoff campaign event in El Cajon accompanied by several well-known, conservative elected officials, DeMaio stood barely a hundred feet away, alongside dozens of his supporters, protesting the former congressman’s entrance in the race and decrying him as a “quitter.”


At the time Issa, when asked about DeMaio’s presence by reporters, said his campaign “will not be about the other guy”; rather it would be a “referendum on whether I am the right person to come back and serve ... in the United States Congress.”

In the time since, DeMaio and Issa’s campaigns have become very much about the other guy. And Trump has emerged as the central theme in their all-out war.

In the past month both candidates released competing television ads — one of which became highly controversial — accusing each other of committing a litany of wrongs against the president.

The accusations were similar to things the two have said about each other at candidate forums, public events and interviews.

DeMaio has accused Issa of “quitting on” Trump, the party and his former Republican constituents in the 49th Congressional District, a seat Issa held for 18 years before not seeking re-election to it in 2018.


The seat was then won handily by Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano).

“Darrell Issa has shown himself in 18 years to be all bluster and very little result,” said DeMaio in a recent interview with the Union-Tribune editorial board.

“In 2018 when his party needed him — when the president needed him — to run for reelection and defend his seat, he chickened out. He choked. He quit. He let down the president.”

DeMaio also has highlighted some of Issa’s past comments to accuse the former congressman of supporting the assignment of a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and of being “pro-amnesty” for immigrants here illegally.

He also contends Issa has opposed certain Trump policies such as the creation of a border wall and a travel ban that targeted seven majority-Muslim countries.

Issa, meanwhile, has similarly gone after DeMaio, accusing him of being a “Never Trump liberal” who “won’t drain the swamp.”

He contends that DeMaio supports “amnesty” for immigrants here illegally and has pointed to some of DeMaio’s past remarks disparaging the president. Issa also has repeatedly said DeMaio was not a true conservative because DeMaio has expressed pro-abortion rights attitudes in the past.


“Carl DeMaio is the politician who tried to slash the budget of the City of San Diego Ethics Commission after they fined him for ethics violations,” Issa said in a campaign email last month.

“The idea that Carl will fight alongside President Trump, who he refused to support and called ‘a disgusting pig’ to clean up Washington is laughable. Carl’s made clear he refuses to stand with President Trump’s reform agenda.”

Criticism, support for Trump

Luna, the political science professor, said the attacks and their domination of the airwaves are a reflection of party purity becoming the end all, be all.

“When party purity becomes the litmus test, you can start looking for anything to show that someone isn’t a faithful and devout member of the party,” Luna said.

Unfortunately for Issa and DeMaio the reality is there’s validity — although missing context — to much of what they’ve lobbed at each other.

Issa did initially support Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential election and expressed worry that Trump’s candidacy could negatively affect down ballot-races. He compared then-candidate Trump to disgraced former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin.


Issa did quickly shift allegiance to Trump in May 2016 though, after Rubio left the race. He appeared alongside Trump at campaign events even as Trump became a toxic figure to many in the 49th Congressional District.

In 2017 Issa also appeared on comedian Bill Maher’s television show where he said that then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions should not be involved in an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the assignment of a special prosecutor was appropriate.

“You cannot have somebody, a friend of mine, Jeff Sessions — who was on the campaign and who is an appointee — you’re going to need to use the special prosecutor’s statute and office,” Issa told Maher in 2017.

“There may or may not be fault, but the American people are beginning to understand that Putin murders his enemies.... This is a bad guy who murders people, who runs a gas station with an economy the size of Italy, and is screwing up things all over the world... We don’t have to trust them, and we need to investigate their activities, and we need to do it because they are bad people.”

Then-Rep. Darrell Issa greets then candidate Donald J. Trump at an event in San Diego in 2016.
(John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune)

Issa would try to walk back that comment days later, saying he simply wanted an “independent review” of the matter. The same week he also voted against a resolution that requested the Justice Department give Congress any records of “criminal or counterintelligence” investigations into relationships between Trump and Russia.


Despite that comment, it appears Issa is still welcome in Trump’s orbit.

The president nominated him for a trade post in 2018, and several well-known Trump supporters have backed Issa’s current candidacy, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and the National Border Patrol Council.

For DeMaio, his voiced support for some pro-abortion rights views is coming up now in Issa’s campaign.

During his 2014 congressional run against Rep. Scott Peters in the more moderate 52nd Congressional District, DeMaio told KPBS he would not support any new restrictions on a woman’s right to choose, saying “Individuals, not their politicians, should make personal health decisions.”

DeMaio also has made comments that some perceived to be propping up third-party candidates, instead of Trump, during the 2016 election. He also has made comments that some may regard as disparaging the president.

Carl DeMaio speaks at an early morning rally in September for the California Rifle & Pistol Assn. outside the entrance to the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Carl DeMaio speaks at an early morning rally in September for the California Rifle & Pistol Assn. outside the entrance to the Crossroads of the West Gun Show at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
(Charlie Neuman)

In a 2018 interview with Los Angeles Blade, DeMaio described Trump as “rude, crude and unattractive” and said Trump’s “behavior at times is abhorrent and certainly not what you’d want as a role model for your kids.”


Issa featured that Blade story in a TV ad.

However, in that comment and story, DeMaio adds that Trump’s faults are irrelevant, because he is effective and getting the job done. DeMaio goes on to compare Trump to an honest plumber.

“Our country — the issues have been festering for so long and people are so dissatisfied that they are willing to tolerate some bad parts of Donald Trump as long as the toilet gets unplugged,” DeMaio said.

“It’s unfortunate. I wish I could have a president where I would say, ‘Look, this is someone who epitomizes on a personal level in their conduct the very best of our country.’ But that unicorn don’t exist.

In the same interview DeMaio also said his job “isn’t to support Donald Trump or oppose him.”

“My job is to call him out when I think he’s wrong and when I think he’s right, I’ll support him,” he said. “But I don’t blindly give my allegiance to anybody. And I hope no one does…. I’ve called him out for telling white lies and exaggerating. I’ve also done that with Democrats.”

The other candidates

It’s unclear what effect the jousting over their respective records on Trump will have on DeMaio and Issa during the coming primary election March 3.


Polling has shown that some voters in the district place a high priority on supporting the president.

A recent poll for the Union-Tribune and 10News found that 12% of voters said “rallying around the president” was their most important issue in choosing a candidate. However, that priority came behind others such as “character of the candidate,” “border security” and “holding the president accountable.”

It’s also unknown whether Trump will feel the need to weigh in on a race that is regarded among political observers as a fairly safe Republican seat come November, regardless of who the Republican nominee is.

The two other candidates in the race most often regarded as leading contenders — Republican state Sen. Brian Jones and Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar — have chosen not to amplify Trump in their campaigns the same way DeMaio and Issa have.

Jones has rarely mentioned Trump on the campaign trail, instead focusing on his roots in the district and his conservative voting record. During an interview with the Union-Tribune editorial board he said he supports Trump and thinks he’s getting good results, although he has “differences” with some of the president’s personality traits.


Meanwhile Campa-Najjar has walked a tight rope when it comes to discussing Trump. In a Dec. 9 interview with the Union-Tribune editorial board, nine days before the House impeached the president, Campa-Najjar said he probably would have abstained from voting on impeachment had he been in Congress.

“I haven’t seen anything enough for me to say that it is critical that I would vote yes on impeachment, if that’s clearer than saying abstaining or voting no,” Campa-Najjar said.

“I’m just not in the ‘yes’ column. I don’t think out of necessity, for the process, because it’s going to happen regardless. And I think on principle, I think that it needs to be such a high threshold and not political theater....”

Since then, in an interview with the Union-Tribune’s Michael Smolens, Campa-Najjar would not say how he would have voted because it was a “hypothetical” and he didn’t have all the necessary material to take a definitive stand, such as access to confidential evidence and the ability to question witnesses.

Luna, the political scientist, said he’s not sure how effective the varying candidate approaches to Trump will be when voters go to the polls next month. But, Issa’s and DeMaio’s approaches could represent another shift in Republican politics in the age of Trump.

“If DeMaio comes out ahead of Issa, it will show that Trump’s populist message is trumping even traditional establishment conservatives on the local level,” Luna said.