Congressional Watch: Looking at mid-term elections

By Andy Cohen

For many years San Diego has been a bit of an outlier when it comes to its congressional delegation. Other than Orange County, San Diego tended to be the only major metropolitan region in the state that overall voted Republican when it came to congressional elections.

San Diego has always had its deep blue bastions, such as the heart of the city and the border district, but the rest of the county trended — much like its representation on the County Board of Supervisors — Republican.

That changed in 2012, when Democrat Congressman Scott Peters defeated long entrenched incumbent Brian Bilbray, tilting the balance of power from Republican to Democrat for the first time since at least the 70’s, three to two.

In the 2018 midterm elections, the Democrats have a real opportunity to place a real stranglehold on the San Diego congressional delegation. So, with the June 5 primary elections looming, we’ll take a look at what the San Diego regional congressional races look like.

First, a note on the use of fundraising statistics as a metric of a candidate’s viability: While money should not be the most important factor in an election cycle, candidates need money to get elected. And while it is surely an imperfect measure, it’s the best we’ve got in determining a candidate’s ability to connect with his or her constituents prior to Election Day. So, with that in mind:

52nd District

We’ll start with what was formerly the most competitive congressional district, but now appears to be a safe seat for Scott Peters (D-52). In 2012, Peters won an extra-innings slugfest against Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray, and until recently, was considered the most vulnerable of the local representatives. In 2014 former San Diego city councilmember, former mayoral candidate, and current right-wing radio talk show flamethrower Carl DeMaio took his shot at Peters. Since then, Peters has only solidified his position, mowing down his challengers in 2016, and drawing only token resistance for 2018.

There are currently six Republican candidates vying for Peters’ seat, but only three that have raised any significant money — including Dr. James Veltmeyer, who unsuccessfully challenged Susan Davis in 2016 — and none who can match Peters’ nearly $1.9 million raised and $2.4 million cash on hand.

Businessman Michael Allman comes closest, with $380,000 raised and $235,000 on hand. While anything is possible, it does not seem realistic that any of these unknowns will be able to successfully challenge the Democratic incumbent who has only grown more and more popular in his district with each passing year. And considering the looming “blue wave” that is expected in November, those chances would appear to be nil.

53rd & 51st District

The 53rd District is all Susan Davis (D-53) and will be as long as she wants to remain in Congress, while Juan Vargas (D-51) has a stranglehold on the 51st District. Davis has drawn four challengers — including one independent — but none who has raised more than $26,000. Davis currently has in excess of $224,000 campaign cash on hand, having raised $202,000. It should be noted that candidates can keep funds raised from previous campaigns to apply to future campaigns.

Vargas has three challengers, two Republican and one independent, none of whom has raised more than $15,000. Vargas has raised over $520,000 (and spent $510,000).

Davis and Vargas will both easily cruise to reelection in the very definition of “safe seats.”

50th District

Incumbent Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter should, logically, be in real trouble. He’s under investigation for campaign finance fraud, has been accused of spending campaign funds on his own drinking habit, along with other malfeasances. He has very little to show for his time in Congress, and yet because of his name recognition — he shares the name of his father, who also was his predecessor — and the “R” in front of his name, his is generally considered a safe seat.

But the scandals might finally be catching up to him. Hunter has been outraised by one of his Democratic challengers, with another nipping very closely at his heels. He has spent more than three times as much money as Ammar Campa-Najjar, his nearest competitor, having blown through over $1 million despite having only raised $666,000 this campaign cycle. Campa-Najjar has raised $707,000 with $333,000 cash on hand. Democrat Josh Butner has raised $595,000 and has $308,000 in the bank.

The closest Republican challenger is Shamus Sayed with $253,000 raised and $157,000 in the bank. With Hunter’s shenanigans, and despite an 11-point Republican registration advantage, this would be the most interesting congressional race if not for the 49th District. Two years ago, it would have been unfathomable that a Democrat could seriously challenge Hunter, but here we are, although it still seems unlikely Hunter will lose.

49th District

If the 52nd District was one of the most expensive in the nation during previous elections, it has easily been surpassed by the circus that has become the 49th District. Congressman Darrell Issa saw the writing on the wall and has called it a career, and a crowd has formed to take his place. The 49th is an R+1 district, but it’s the Democrats in the race who have taken center stage. Four of them, including millionaire businessman Paul Kerr ($1.9 million raised), Sara Jacobs, the granddaughter of Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs and former State Department official ($1.7 million raised), attorney Mike Levin ($1.5 million), and Marine Colonel Doug Applegate ($800,000), who came within one percent of running Issa out of office in 2016.

They are followed by an impressive collection of Republican candidates: San Juan Capistrano City Councilman Brian Maryott; Chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization, Diane Harkey; San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar; and State Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, none of whom has raised more than $420,000.

This seat is a ripe pickup opportunity for Democrats, but with such a crowded field, they run the risk of losing out in the general election altogether in California’s top two “jungle primary” system.

— Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at

Leave a Comment