By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch
Here we are, just one week away from the 2016 general election as I write this column (four days from publication date).
It’s almost over, folks! This election season has been a circus and not just at the presidential level, although that race certainly has made history for its absurdity. We can only hope that 2016 won’t have left a jarring, indelible stain on our country’s history. On the other hand, this country did survive Barry Goldwater and we’re likely to survive this.
Locally, things have gotten a bit more interesting as well.
No, Congressional races aren’t usually as “sexy” (to steal a term from Assemblymember-elect Todd Gloria) as the presidential, but that doesn’t mean they are lacking for drama. San Diego has certainly seen its share of drama in local elections.
Take the 49th Congressional District race, where temperatures have skyrocketed between incumbent Darrell Issa (R-49) and virtually-out-of-nowhere challenger Douglas Applegate, an attorney and retired Marine Colonel. It’s a campaign that is also becoming known for its nastiness, as the candidates and their campaigns exchange insults.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the spots: Issa’s campaign labeling Applegate as a serial stalker and Applegate’s supporters tarring Issa as a congressional leach who has used his elected office to enrich his own bank account.
The tension at Issa campaign headquarters clearly must be palpable and the prospect of losing is very real. How else to explain Issa suddenly attempting to ride President Obama’s coattails to reelection? In a recent campaign mailer, Issa expressed his gratitude to Obama for signing a piece of legislation he supported.
“I am very pleased that President Obama has signed into law the Survivor’s Bill of Rights — legislation I co-sponsored to protect the victims of sexual assault,” the mailer reads, with a photo of Obama presumably signing said legislation at his desk in the Oval Office.
Set aside the worthiness of the legislation for a moment — and it is a worthy piece of legislation — and just consider Issa’s history with Obama. Issa made himself a national name by denigrating the president and searching for anything with which to smear the administration as chair of the House Oversight Committee. He has said that Obama is “one of the most corrupt presidents of modern times,” and that Obama’s “taking sides” in a Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary amounts to an impeachable offense.
Sure, Obama’s approval numbers are at 54 percent according to the latest Gallup weekly survey, with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s prospects sinking fast. It’s understandable that Issa would try and paint a kumbaya picture of compromise and bipartisanship. But that’s not the history.
In response to the mailer, Obama called Issa “shameless,” and said that touting his cooperation with the president on issues is “the definition of chutzpah” at an Applegate fundraiser in La Jolla.
Contrast that with the 52nd — where incumbent Scott Peters (D-52) is running for a third term against first-time Republican challenger and former George W. Bush administration official Denise Gitsham — a race that is downright tame in comparison. Sure, there’s been the usual sniping between the campaigns, but very little of the outright name-calling and down-in-the-gutter nastiness that has come to define the Issa-Applegate race.
Instead, the campaigns have mostly gone on the airwaves touting their own candidates’ qualifications and accomplishments, an approach that seems weird for this normally hotly-contested swing district. Politics is a full-contact sport, so the saying goes, but the Peters and Gitsham camps have been downright respectful of each other compared to what we’re used to seeing.
But what about the other three congressional races in San Diego? We know who the incumbents are, but does anyone know who their challengers are, and whether they have a snowball’s chance in hell at winning? The answer to the latter question is, no, of course not.
Take Susan Davis (D-53) and her Republican challenger, James Veltmeyer, a doctor from La Mesa. Veltmeyer has raised $116,600 to Davis’ $462,000. He finished the June primary with a mere 15.2 percent of the vote.
Or, take the Battle of the Juans, pitting Juan Vargas (D-51) against Republican and retired Marine Juan Hidalgo, Jr.
Finally there’s Duncan Hunter (R-50) and his Democratic challenger Patrick Malloy, who managed to pull 21.8 percent of the June vote. Malloy has managed to scare up $18,000. Hunter? A mere $1.1 million, a large majority coming from outside the district and most from out of state, according to the San Diego Union Tribune.
Hunter, by the way, won 56.5 percent of the June vote, while Davis and Vargas pulled in 65 percent and 67 percent respectively.
The point is that very few have any idea who the challengers are in the 50th, 51st, and 53rd district races are, while a good many have an idea that the 49th and 52nd races are at least being contested.
Why? Simply put, money.
Applegate and Gitsham have been able to raise a significant amount of money — roughly $1.3 million each — to get their names and faces out there, although it can be argued that no one had heard of Applegate before he finished within five percentage points behind Issa in the primary. But they’ve been able to advertise and at least buildup a modicum of name recognition. The others remain mired in anonymity, allowing the incumbents to cruise to reelection with little to no effort.
There are a lot of reasons why some of our congressional races are competitive and others are not, including demographics, voter, and party registration.
Peters will likely rather easily win his race because he’s well liked and people think he’s done a pretty good as a member of Congress. Issa will likely win because of his near universal name recognition; but the bottom line is that money still rules elections. And if you want drama in an election, you’d better have the money to create it.
—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.