Issa kicks off his campaign for Rep. Duncan Hunter’s seat as four candidates drop out

[Darrell Issa, center, announces he’ll run for seat held by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter during a news conference Thursday in El Cajon, Calif.
(Gregory Bull / AP)

SEP. 26, 2019 12:40 PM

Former Rep. Darrell Issa made it official Thursday: he is running for the congressional seat currently held by Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is fighting a criminal indictment.

Issa kicked off his campaign Thursday morning in downtown El Cajon, announcing he has withdrawn his nomination for a senior trade post in the Trump Administration and will seek to represent the 50th District, which includes East County, Inland North County and a small portion of Riverside County.

Issa’s trade nomination stalled in the Senate for over a year, but he has long been rumored a candidate for the 50th. He said he flew back to D.C. with President Donald Trump after the president visited San Diego last week and discussed his desire to turn his attention to the congressional race.

He added that the exploratory committee he established a few weeks ago to test the waters for running received more than 2,400 contributions.

“In politics when thousands of people respond to ‘I’m looking at this, I’m exploring this,’ you pay attention,” Issa said.

“Today I’m announcing I will be the next congressman from the 50th Congressional District. I am dedicated to do that because I believe I have the history, the skills, the seniority and the capability to hit the ground running, not just for this district, but for California.”

The announcement from the former nine-term congressman immediately shakes up the race to replace embattled Hunter, who is scheduled to go on trial in January on 60 counts related to illegal campaign spending.

Hunter has pleaded not guilty to those charges and is seeking re-election.

Hunter’s legal woes had drawn the interest of a bevy of potential candidates including Democrat, Ammar Campa-Najjar, and six other Republicans, including former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, State Sen. Brian Jones, Temecula Mayor Matt Rahn, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and retired Navy SEAL Larry Wilske.

Many of those Republicans were on hand for Issa’s announcement.

Wells, Abed and Wilske, joined Issa at the press conference to announce they had ended their campaigns and throwm their support behind Issa.

Rahn also said he intendned to back Issa, though he was stuck in traffic during the press conference.

“The reason I got involved in the congressional race in the first place is I thought it was very important that the 50th Congressional District continued to be led by a Conservative Republican,” said Wells. “With Darrell Issa getting involved in the race, I feel confident that the right man is here to lead us into the future.... Darrell Issa is a man I respect. Darrell Issa is an iconic conservative. And Darrell Issa believes in the things most people in the 50th District believe in.”

Joining the former candidates endorsing Issa was San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob, an icon of East County and the longest serving supervisor in San Diego’s history.

“We cannot afford to get this election wrong,” Jacob said. “Darrell is battle tested, he has proven leadership that we desperately need in Washington D.C., and he has seniority.... Seniority will help us get what we need in East County, and he will hit the ground running.”

More than supporters showed up at Centennial Plaza for Issa’s announcement. Barely 100 feet away, conservative candidate DeMaio, whose campaign had gotten off to a strong start and is viewed as a lead Republican challenger to Hunter, joined about two dozen of his supporters, including some former constituents of Issa’s, to protest Issa’s entrance into the race.

His supporters criticized the former congressman for not seeking re-election in 2018, when he was representing the neighboring 49th Congressional District.

[Congressional candidate Carl DeMaio responds after former Congressman Darrell Issa announced that he is running for Congress in California's 50th district on September 26, 2019 in El Cajon, California. (Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“This is a politician who epitomizes what is wrong with career politicians,” DeMaio said of Issa. “He spent 20 years in D.C., he neglected his constituents, and then he lost the support of his district, and failed to put up a fight. I pledge this: I will never quit on you.”

Issa in January 2018 decided to not seek re-election to the seat representing north coastal San Diego and Southern Orange County. The Republican nominee to replace him, then-Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey, was easily defeated by Democrat Rep. Mike Levin later that year.

Michael Lewis, a Del Mar resident who attended the press conference, said he used to be proud of Issa until the moment the congressman quit. Now he is fully behind DeMaio.

“This is the guy I’ve always wanted in office,” Lewis said. “This is the man that’ll stand up for San Diego, for California and actually support the president.

Let’s not give up. Let’s stand behind someone who will fight for us.”

When Issa was asked by reporters if DeMaio’s presence at his event was “bad form,” Issa said he was not going to talk about any other candidate.

“This campaign will not be about the other guy,” Issa said. “This campaign will be a referendum on whether I am the right person to come back and serve for a number of terms again in the United States Congress.”

The Republican Party of San Diego County is expected to decide if and who they will endorse in the race on Oct. 14, when the party’s central committee meets. A candidate will need to receive two-thirds of the vote to receive the endorsement.