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Democrats Look To Flip 49th Congressional Seat After 18 Years Of Republican Issa

(Photos courtesy of Diane Harkey and Mike Levin campaigns)
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The race for 49th Congressional District is at the tip of the spear of Democratic efforts to gain control of the House in November.

Candidates Diane Harkey, a Republican, and Democrat Mike Levin are vying to replace Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Vista, who has held the seat for 18 years.

The 49th District includes North San Diego County's coastal cities, Camp Pendleton and southern Orange County.

Speaking in August at the opening of her Carlsbad campaign office, Harkey left her supporters with no doubt about the importance of the race for the 49th.

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"This is the most watched, high-profile election in the country," she told them. "We've got to do this."

Issa recruited Harkey to run for the seat after he announced unexpectedly he would step down at the beginning of the year.

"I've known Diane as a public servant for a long time. She's probably more skilled coming to office than I was," Issa said in a KGTV 10News interview, referring to Harkey's experience in the California State Assembly and on the California Board of Equalization.

UC San Diego Political Science Professor Thad Kousser said Issa's endorsement is significant since the 49th is a district with great symbolic meaning for both parties.

"It was held by Darrell Issa, the biggest thorn in the side of President Obama," Kousser said. "(Issa) had the biggest target on his back and Democrats have been working since the day after the 2016 elections. There's a Flip the 49th group that has been incredibly energized and this district has huge emotional and symbolic meaning for the party."

A map of the 49th Congressional District is shown in this graphic. (Credit: KPBS)

At Democratic candidate Levin's campaign office in Oceanside, a sign on the wall reads, "Ride the Blue Wave with Mike." There's a large photograph of Barack Obama standing with Levin during the former president's first campaign swing through Southern California.

"It's great to see the response since President Obama's visit," Levin said. "Particularly among those independent voters who really liked when we had a president who carried himself with integrity and honesty."

Harkey, meanwhile, has played down her support of President Trump, who has tweeted his endorsement of her. Harkey has focused on her support for business interests, specifically San Diego's high-tech industries.

"Biotech, biomed, life sciences -- it's huge, it's a huge industry," she told her North County supporters. "And this is all facilitated or harmed by Washington D.C. with NIH grants. And actually, Trump's recent plan to increase military spending is helping out a lot."

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In an interview on KPBS, Levin countered Harkey's pitch with a pitch of his own to appeal to San Diego's high-tech businesses.

"Her party had a budget proposal," Levin said, "Trump's -- to gut funding from the NIH and the DOE and other important research and development that we need here in our district. I am committed to growing clean energy."

Levin, an environmental attorney, knows he has to appeal to independent, decline-to-state voters who now outnumber registered Republicans in California.

"It's a coastal district by and large, and most of those independent voters don't want dirty air or dirty water," Levin said. "We believe in an EPA that actually wants to protect the environment."

Harkey's positions on the environment and climate change are less clear. She was uncertain when asked on KPBS if she believes climate change is caused by humans.

"Well, there's humans, there's also natural disasters, volcanoes and other things, things that can ruin your whole day," she said. "So I think there's probably scientific evidence, I can't say for sure. I'm not a scientist, that climate change is real, it's occurring, I'm sure it is, but my point is, I want to be sure that what we're doing is not so draconian that people can't stay here, live, work and play in the state that I love."

On health care, Levin accuses his opponent of voting five times against covering pre-existing conditions.

"We've got to do all we can to ensure quality and affordable care for everyone," Levin said during an interview with KPBS. "That will be our first order of business on the path to universal coverage, which I also see as one of the great moral issues of our time."

When asked if he would be willing to raise taxes to pay for that, Levin questioned the current administration's tax priorities.

"I think we've got to look at a variety of options," he said. "But I would look at the irresponsible tax cut that this administration passed that really go to those at the very top. And I wonder, what are our priorities? Do we need tax cuts for people who really don't need them or do we need to take care of people's health care?"

Harkey's fundraising has fallen far behind Levin's. Plus the National Republican Congressional Committee has withheld funding from Harkey's campaign, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has poured money into supporting Levin, including ads that attack Harkey.

Harkey's husband has been convicted of elder abuse in connection with his investment company, Point Center Investments, a company that courts have ruled deprived many seniors of their life savings.

Harkey said she was not involved in her husband's financial wrongdoings, and that a court dismissed the case against her, "with prejudice."

But UCSD's Kousser said the association makes her vulnerable.

"I think if you are a candidate who most voters in this area don't know yet, and you're not the incumbent, and the odds are against you, having a scandal is never the right way to make a first impression," Kousser said.

Republican candidates got less than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary in the 49th, and Democrats aim to keep it that way in November.

Kousser said this is one of two dozen key congressional seats Democrats must win nationwide if they hope to gain control of the House.

"If they can't win in a district like this -- in a district that Hillary Clinton won by seven points, a district that has been increasingly trending Democratic, a district where they've got a strong candidate who has deeply out-raised the Republican, then they're not going to win in enough places to retake the House," Kousser said. "This is one of those districts that Republicans can afford to lose and Democrats can't afford not to gain."

Get ready for the Nov. 6 election. Here at LAist, we want to make sure Angelenos have all the information they need to cast their votes. To get prepped on deadlines, candidates and ballot measures, check out our Voter Game Plan. And if you liked this election guide, consider supporting us! You can donate here.

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