Democrats on edge in battle to replace Issa in California

Democrats are locked in a battle to replace retiring Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaWhy the GOP march of mad hatters poses a threat to our Democracy Elijah Cummings, native son of Baltimore, gets emotional send-off from Democratic luminaries Lawmakers come together to honor Cummings: 'One of the greats in our country's history' MORE (R-Calif.), with no clear front-runner in what has become the most expensive House race in the country.

More than a dozen candidates from both parties are competing for the seat in California’s “jungle” primary on Tuesday, where the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election in the fall.

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Issa, the outspoken former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman, represents one of three GOP-held districts in the state where a split electorate could give Republicans a shot at advancing a pair of candidates to the November midterms.

That scenario is giving heartburn to Democrats, who once viewed Issa’s San Diego-area seat as a prime pickup opportunity in the fall. The district has long been a GOP stronghold but has shifted toward Democrats in recent years, with presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Harris rips Gabbard over Fox appearances during Obama years Steyer, Gabbard and Yang shut out of early minutes of Democratic debate MORE winning the area by 7 points in 2016.

“This race is a flip of a sideways coin,” one national Democratic strategist told The Hill. “Any of the five front-running candidates could get into the top two, which could mean two Republicans, two Democrats, or a Republican and a Democrat. I don’t think we know.”

Issa’s announcement in January that he would not seek reelection set off a mad dash for his seat, with eight Republicans and several Democrats joining the race. But the infusion of candidates and spending — about $14 million overall, mostly from Democrats — has also complicated contenders’ efforts to stand out.

Doug Applegate, a retired Marine colonel who came within roughly 1,600 votes of defeating Issa in 2016, launched another bid three months later and became an early favorite. While he boasts a military background in an area with a sizable veteran population, Applegate has struggled with fundraising, having raised and spent less than each of his Democratic rivals.

Recent polling has shown Sara Jacobs, a former State Department employee who worked on Clinton’s campaign, with late momentum. At 29, she could become the youngest woman elected to Congress. But she has struggled to crack the top two spots in polls and has faced accusations from opponents that she inflated her résumé.

Meanwhile, strategists point to real estate investor Paul Kerr, who launched a bid last summer, as being a major wildcard in the race.

Kerr has dumped a whopping $5.6 million of his own money into his campaign, with some of that going toward negative advertising against Jacobs and environmental attorney Mike Levin. The investor is on the air in the final week of the primary with a $350,000 ad buy, according to a Democrat tracking media buys.

While Kerr has continued to poll in the single-digits, strategists warn that he could draw votes away from other Democrats battling in the 49th District who could clinch a spot on the midterm ballot.

“The one risk we have in 49 is the impact of Paul Kerr: the biggest spender, but has the least movement,” the Democratic strategist said, adding Kerr “may be holding others back from the top two.”

Kerr’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Jacobs has also self-funded, putting $1.6 million into her campaign. She is the beneficiary of the EMILY’s List super PAC, which has spent more than $2 million to boost her bid. Her grandfather Irwin Jacobs, the co-founder of Qualcomm, donated $1 million to the group.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) hasn’t signaled a preference in the race, a different tactic from how it has handled other races where Democrats risk a shutout.

California Democrats have also struggled to coalesce around a candidate, with Levin falling just short of the necessary votes to secure the backing of delegates at the state party’s convention in February.

“People are very frustrated we don’t have a clear front-runner and are quite motivated to get everyone out to the polls because we’re concerned,” said Terra Lawson-Remer, an organizer with Flip the 49th, a local grass-roots group that has worked to get left-leaning voters to the polls on Tuesday.

Lawson-Remer said Democrats are “frustrated at the situation in general ... frustrated with other candidates for not dropping out.”

For their part, national Democrats have gone on the offensive, focusing their resources on attacking Republicans.

The DCCC and two major Democratic super PACs – House Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action – have spent more than $1 million on ads and mailers hammering state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who was once viewed as the leading GOP candidate. By comparison, Chavez has gotten just $29,000 from a super PAC backing him.

Meanwhile, Chavez has seen his lead begin to evaporate over the past month as Diane Harkey, a member of the State Board of Equalization, has positioned herself as a front-running candidate. Harkey, who is backed by Issa, has also benefited from American Future Fund, an Iowa-based GOP super PAC that has spent more than $200,000 on mailers.

San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar, who recently met with President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE about California’s “sanctuary state” laws, is also vying for GOP support. And while she’s only polling in the single digits, Gaspar could play the role of spoiler if she takes away votes from the other two leading Republicans.

Democrats have heavily outspent Republicans in the race and have experimented with their turnout operations, but Republicans have also made some last-minute investments to juice turnout.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which has also not backed a candidate in the primary, launched a series of digital ads as part of a six-figure buy aimed at drawing Trump supporters to the polls.

Some political observers argue that if turnout reflects past numbers, Republicans have a shot of locking out Democrats for the seats currently held by Issa, Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherGeorge Papadopoulos launches campaign to run for Katie Hill's congressional seat The Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz MORE (R) and retiring Rep. Ed RoyceEdward (Ed) Randall RoyceMystery surrounds elusive sanctions on Russia Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers struggle to understand Facebook's Libra project | EU hits Amazon with antitrust probe | New cybersecurity concerns over census | Robocall, election security bills head to House floor | Privacy questions over FaceApp House panel advances bill to protect elections from foreign interference MORE (R).

“The reality is if Republicans turn out in the same numbers as always and Democrats do the same, it’s extremely possible in all three races two Republicans advance,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former executive director of the California Republican Party.