California Rep. Darrell Issa, considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the 2018 midterms, announced Tuesday he would retire instead of seeking re-election.
The news came just two days after fellow Californian and chairman of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee Ed Royce declared his intention to retire from Congress. Together, the impending exits could provide a significant boon to Democrats, who had been eyeing the Southern California seats as ripe for the taking.
Democrats’ path to winning the House majority runs through California, which holds seven of the two-dozen GOP districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Issa barely hung on to his seat that year, winning by just half a percentage point while the Democratic presidential nominee took it by over seven points. In an indication of how difficult his re-election bid figured to be, Issa -- who garnered a partisan reputation on Capitol Hill in the Obama era as chairman of the Oversight Committee -- voted against his own party last year on the health care repeal efforts and the tax reform bill signed by President Trump.
Democrats had aggressively targeted Issa and other Republicans in Orange County early in this campaign cycle after taking stock of how dramatically GOP strongholds there appeared to be turning in their favor. Clinton became the first Democrat since 1936 to win Orange County last year, and competitive U.S. Senate and governors’ races in November will likely boost Democratic turnout in the state. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has had field organizers working in the district since early 2017, and it has a West Coast office based in the county.
Those dynamics, combined with the new tax law that will hit high-tax states such as California the hardest, has Democrats cheering retirements there and anticipating additional openings ahead.
“The Republican agenda in Washington has been a direct attack on Californians,” said Drew Godinich, a DCCC spokesman. “After passing a devastating tax scam and fighting to rip away healthcare from millions of families, California Republicans clearly see the writing on the wall and realize that their party and its priorities are toxic to their re-election chances in 2018.”
Issa had already drawn a crowded and competitive field of Democratic challengers. Doug Applegate, a veteran and attorney who narrowly lost to the incumbent in 2016, announced early in the cycle that he planned a rematch. The other Democrats include Mike Levin, an attorney and former local Democratic Party official; Sara Jacobs, a former Obama administration official who has backing from EMILY’s List, the powerful women’s advocacy group; and Paul Kerr, a real estate developer from San Diego.
But Republicans hope that crowded field of Democrats will give them an opening in an otherwise difficult district. Republicans had been preparing for competitive races in these areas -- a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan opened five field offices in California, though it did not have one in Issa’s district.
Recent internal GOP polling there showed Democrats with a single-point lead in the generic congressional ballot, which could portend a close race with the seat open. The polling also showed President Trump’s approval in the district was consistent with national trends -- 40 percent approve and 56 percent disapprove nationally in the RealClearPolitics average. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi is also viewed unfavorably with a 33/58 percent split in the district, according to the GOP survey.
In October, however, Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling found Speaker Paul Ryan's rating in the district to be underwater, with just one-quarter of voters approving of the job he's doing.
Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of House Republicans’ campaign committee, said Democrats’ primary in the district is “fast becoming one of the bloodiest … in America.
“Democrats fight with each other, Republicans will focus on fighting Democrats – and that's how we plan to win,” Stivers said. “We look forward to facing whoever limps out of the Democrats' battle royale: black and blue, and broke."
Heading into the new year, Republicans argued that their vulnerable incumbents would have the benefit of name ID and personal histories in their districts to protect them against any Democratic challenges. In some cases, GOP incumbents had shown an ability to outperform the top of the ticket. Royce, for example, won his district by 14 points even as Clinton took it by nine. Fundraising was also crucial in the expensive Los Angeles and San Diego media markets -- Issa is among the wealthiest members of Congress, and Royce had $3.5 million in the bank when he announced his departure. But retirements take away that advantage, and the number of them, especially in those in high-ranking positions, could portend the troubles for the party ahead.
Thirty-one congressional Republicans have already announced their retirement (that includes about a dozen who are running for another office), and more could come as filing deadlines approach.