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Republicans put Issa in special re-election program

by Joshua Stewart

After Rep. Darrell Issa won re-election by a razor-thin margin, the National Republican Congressional Committee has put him in its Patriot Program, a special fundraising and campaign operation that helps incumbents keep their seats.

Issa, a Vista Republican, is an anomaly of the 10-member group. Serving in his ninth term, Issa joins five freshmen representatives, three more elected in 2015 and another in 2013.

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Clearly the most seasoned among them, Issa has chaired an influential House committee, and has built a national profile and network of donors. Unlike some of the Patriot Program’s other members, Issa’s district, which includes northern San Diego County and southern Orange County, is solidly Republican.

While Issa has advantages going into the 2018 mid-term elections that his colleagues lack, he won re-election in the closest congressional race in the country after defeating Democrat Doug Applegate by a mere 1,621 votes. Applegate has already announced he’s running again.

Patriot Program candidates are supported with a communications plan, fundraising, campaign infrastructure and other necessities of a race, said Jack Pandol, a committee spokesman.

There are also some other benefits Republicans are keeping under wraps.

“We don’t get into the specifics of what that plan entails because we don’t like giving away a winning playbook to Democrats,” Pandol said.

Whatever secrets are in the playbook, they seem to work. In November, 16 of the 20 candidates named to last year’s program were re-elected, while three lost and one retired from office.

The Patriot Program indicates that the GOP is focused on this race, and that there will be more scrutiny of Applegate, Issa’s spokesman Calvin Moore said.

“It shows Republicans are serious about pushing back against the millions of dollars of special-interest money spent on attack ads and false smear campaigns against Congressman Issa in the last election,” he said.

Applegate did not return a request for comment.

Congressman Darrell Issa, R-Vista, answers reporters questions from reporters at his Oceanside campaign headquarter on election day. (Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The NRCC names members to the program based not only on how close their races were, but also on the outcomes of other races in the districts, voter registration statistics and trends, Pandol said.

Democrats are targeting Issa, and put his seat on a list of 20 districts they hope to flip in 2018. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is hiring a full-time organizing staffer and online ad campaign early in the election cycle

The Democratic committee’s chairman, Ben Ray Luján, said they’re trying to harness momentum from the Women’s Marches across the country and other protests

A grassroots effort has also put pressure on Issa and other Republicans as well as Democrats to not only oppose policies from President Donald Trump, but to pay closer attention to their district.

Through regular protests and petitions, Issa’s constituents, led by a loosely organized group of progressives, have tried for months to get a face-to-face meeting with their representative to no avail.

Issa said he prefers to hold teleconferences because they are more orderly and cost-effective, but the constituents say that a phone call is not enough, and have invited the congressman to attend a town hall discussion about health care they have organized next week at their own expense. Congress is not in session that day, and so far Issa has not said if he plans to attend.

Issa’s race last year was one of the most-watched in the country, in part because one of the most influential and well-known members of the House was fighting an underdog with no name recognition and a shoestring budget who managed a serious challenge.

Applegate finished the primary with 45.5 percent of the vote, while Issa got 50.8 percent and far-left candidate Ryan Wingo received 3.7 percent.

The close primary caused Issa, who had cruised to re-election seven times since he won his first race in 2000, to mount a different style of campaign. For the first time he erected yard signs, held a series of neighborhood meetings, and took bike and bus tours of the district.

While he intensified his efforts leading up to Election Day, the contest was so close that it took 20 days to count enough votes to determine that Issa had won another term.

The general election was even closer than the primary, with Issa receiving 50.3 percent to Applegate’s 49.7.

The day after Applegate conceded he announced that he would run again in 2018. Issa’s campaign, in response, went on the attack.

“Voters already rejected Applegate once and the millions of dollars outside special interests spent attacking Congressman Issa — and they’ll do it again,” his spokesman Moore said in a statement at the time.

The NRCC’s Patriot Program was created in 2009 to help incumbents whose political careers might be derailed.

“Our Patriots are a group of battle-tested members who won hard fought races in 2016 and are ready to win once again,” NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers said in a statement.

“Each of those announced is not only an effective member in Congress, but an integral advocate for the communities they serve.”

This year’s class has 10 members, including three from California, but will likely add additional participants as the election nears. Stivers and Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pennsylvania, are running the program.

Allison Stratton