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Congressional challengers in District 49 already raising big money - OC Register

By Martin Wisckol

Orange County’s Republican congressional incumbents are leading the way in fundraising, but challengers to Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, also posted strong first quarter reports and provided more evidence of the nationwide attention the county’s shifting party loyalties is attracting.

With Hillary Clinton prevailing in all four of the county’s GOP House districts — as well winning countywide — Democrats see potential for unseating the incumbents. The fundraising tallies indicate there could be strong contenders, as Democrats don’t typically enter these races so early in the cycle let alone raise hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Issa avoided being upset by retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, a San Clemente Democrat, by just 0.7 percentage points last year, despite outspending his opponent $6 million to $2 million. The closeness of the contest helped lure environmental lawyer and veteran Democratic activist Mike Levin of San Juan Capistrano into the race this year.

In the first quarter, Issa raised $367,000. That, combined with the last campaign’s remaining funds, leave him with $522,000 cash on hand. Levin raised $284,000 and has $264,000 left. Applegate, who’s running again, raised $117,000 and has $92,000 remaining.

Rohrabacher raised $223,000 in the quarter and has $204,500 cash on hand. Democratic challenger Harley Rouda, a Laguna Beach businessman, raised $215,000 including $56,000 of his own money, and has $200,000 remaining. The three other Democrats in the race hadn’t begun fundraising by the March 30 filing deadline. While Republicans have a 11-percentage point advantage in the district, Clinton’s narrow victory there is buoying Democrats’ hopes.

“When one of the richest counties in the country goes blue for the first time (since 1936), people take notice,” said CSU Fullerton political scientist Matthew Jarvis, pointing to Clinton’s role in the fundraising. “But whether these fundraising numbers can be maintained for eight quarters in another issue entirely.”

The county’s most prolific fundraiser so far is Rep. Ed Royce, R-Fullerton, who hasn’t drawn a challenger yet despite his party leading in the district’s voter registration by a narrow 1.7 percentage points. The 12-term veteran raised $507,000, bringing his campaign war chest to nearly $2.9 million.

Second-best is sophomore Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Beach, with $384,000 raised and $557,000 cash on hand. Three Democrats declared candidacies against Walters earlier this month, after the first quarter filing period had ended. Walters’ home in Laguna Beach is actually in Rohrabacher’s district, but district residency is not a requirement.

The Issa race is attracting the most attention so far, thanks to last year’s close call. The two Democrats combined have raised more than the incumbent, which highlights a possible downside to the multiple Democrats running in three of the House districts: They could burn up available money battling each other, leaving less for the expected November runoffs against Republicans.

“This is a solid start to the year,” Issa said via email. “I’m tremendously honored and encouraged by the support we’ve seen.”

Levin, meanwhile, pointed out that $169,000 of Issa’s first quarter money came from PACs rather than individuals, while Levin’s own treasury is stocked almost entirely by individual contributors.

“We’ve raised far more from real people than Issa and that’s what will win — grassroots support,” Levin said, noting he had 1,800 individual donors during his three weeks in the race before the end of the filing period.

Issa spokesman Calvin Moore fired back, “Pretty rich for Mike to say that, given his past as a corporate lobbyist and as a poster boy for the liberal Washington elite during his days as bag man for Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign last year.”

Levin was a volunteer for Clinton’s campaign.

For his part, Applegate noted that most of Levin’s money came from outside the district. Of contributions more than $200, which required donor identification information, only 20 were from within the congressional district by Applegate’s count. He said his own fundraising was sluggish because he was busy battling a defamation lawsuit filed against his 2016 campaign by Issa. The case was dismissed in early March.

In the race against Rohrabacher, Rouda campaign consultant Dave Jacobson said his client’s early fundraising was “evidence of the fact that Harley Rouda’s people-powered, people-driven campaign has tapped into the groundswell of grassroots activism that’s electrifying Orange County.”

Rohrabacher pointed out that a quarter of Rouda’s money came from his own pocket and that he cruised to a 16-percentage point win last November.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “We’re going to have a couple big fundraisers this year and we’ll be OK.”

Scott Baugh, former county GOP chairman and former GOP leader of the state Assembly, still has $548,000 he raised last year in preparation for Rohrabacher’s possible retirement. But Rohrabacher has said he expects to run again in 2018 and Baugh hasn’t said whether he would challenge his longtime friend. Baugh reported no new fundraising this year.

Danielle Gradisher