Darrell Issa eyes return to Congress

Former Rep. Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaNew poll shows tight race in key California House race Five Latinas who could be Biden's running mate The Hill's Campaign Report: Campaigns confront reality of coronavirus MORE (R-Calif.) is eyeing a return to Congress, as his nomination by President TrumpDonald John TrumpWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Coronavirus hits defense contractor jobs Wake up America, your country doesn't value your life MORE to lead a U.S. trade agency stalls in the Senate.

Issa, who left the House in early January after not seeking reelection, is carefully tracking the federal corruption case involving GOP Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan HunterNew poll shows tight race in key California House race Congressionally created commission recommends requiring that women register for draft Former Rep. Duncan Hunter sentenced to 11 months in prison MORE, whose San Diego-area district is adjacent to the one Issa used to represent.

Sources close to the former Oversight and Reform Committee chairman say he is considering a bid for California’s 50th Congressional District if Hunter resigns or decides not to seek reelection.

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Such a move would come at a time when Issa’s nomination to lead the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) has been stuck in committee for months in the Senate, and as Hunter’s legal woes appear to be growing.

Margaret Hunter, the congressman’s wife and a co-conspirator in the case, pleaded guilty last week to a single count of conspiring to use funds from her husband’s congressional campaign — a reversal from when the charges were first handed down.

But even if Issa, 65, were to be successful in winning the neighboring House seat, he’s not guaranteed a hero’s welcome on Capitol Hill.

Some Republican lawmakers, including those who served on committees with Issa, said they weren’t exactly thrilled by the possibility of his return. Issa was the wealthiest member of Congress during his tenure, and multiple GOP members said he rubbed colleagues the wrong way.

“Issa had his time here,” one Republican member told The Hill. “He was able to chair a committee. And most people know that when you retire, you are done. And so, yeah, we know California is a challenging political environment, but I don’t think there’s been a lot of calls made to have him come back.”

One former member of the GOP leadership team suggested Issa lost touch with his district. 

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In response to such criticism, a source close to the former congressman emphasized that no final decision has been made yet about a House bid.

Other members, however, said Issa has a record of service and encouraged him to run again if there is an opportunity. 

Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Airbnb - Senators clinch deal on T stimulus package White House, Senate reach deal on trillion stimulus package The Hill's 12:30 Report: Lawmakers near deal on stimulus MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, declined to weigh in on any GOP challenges against Republican lawmakers. But when asked about the hypothetical scenario of Issa running for the seat if Hunter steps aside, Meadows said he would support such a move.

“Darrell has got a servant’s heart. If he is willing to serve and continue to serve, and can earn the trust of California electorate, I’d be applauding from the stands,” said Meadows, who served on the Oversight and Reform Committee when Issa was chairman.

Hunter, however, has not announced any plans to leave office. Asked what he made of Issa eyeing his seat, Hunter characterized him as someone who is not in touch with the district.

“Darrell has been supportive of me in the past. He is supporting me now. He is not in the district, nothing close to it. He probably doesn’t know much about the district,” Hunter told The Hill. “But it’s anybody’s prerogative to run for office anywhere they want to.”

Issa represented the 49th District for more than a decade, first winning the seat in 2002. But by 2016, he faced a tough path to reelection in what was becoming an increasingly Democratic district, one that went for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWith VP pick, Biden can't play small ball in a long ball world Hillary Clinton on US leading in coronavirus cases: Trump 'did promise "America First"' Democratic fears rise again as coronavirus pushes Biden to sidelines MORE in 2016 by about 7 percentage points.

That same year Issa beat Democratic challenger Douglas Applegate by only 1,621 votes. In January 2018, Issa announced he would not seek reelection, effectively paving the way for Democrat Mike Levin to defeat Republican Diane Harkey to claim the seat. Levin won by 13 points.

Hunter, who was first elected to Congress in 2008, now represents a GOP stronghold, one of the few remaining red districts in an increasingly blue state. In 2012, he beat Democrat David Secor by more than 30 points, and in 2016 the district went for Trump by roughly 15 points.

Even with the criminal charges, Hunter won reelection in 2018 by more than 3 points.

Issa has expressed interest in the seat before. Last year, while he was still in Congress, sources told The Hill he was weighing a bid if Hunter stepped aside, several months after prosecutors indicted Hunter on charges of misusing campaign funds.

Hunter and his wife were charged with wire fraud, falsifying campaign finances reports, prohibited use of campaign contributions and conspiracy to commit offenses.

The Justice Department alleged that the lawmaker inappropriately used such funds to pay for trips to Italy and Hawaii, family dental appointments, his children’s private school tuition, expensive meals, groceries and recreational activities like movie tickets and golf outings.

Hunter, one of the president's earliest supporters, has described the federal probe as a "rigged witch hunt."

Issa’s interest in the seat could change if his nomination to the USTDA post moves forward, but some senators voiced concerns about him leading the trade agency.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezHillicon Valley: Facebook launches portal for coronavirus information | EU sees spike in Russian misinformation on outbreak | Senate Dem bill would encourage mail-in voting | Lawmakers question safety of Google virus website Democratic senators press Google over privacy of coronavirus screening site Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill there are “a whole host” of issues he has about Issa’s nomination, though he declined to provide further specifics.

As Oversight chairman, Issa burnished a national reputation for taking on the Obama administration, launching high-profile investigations into the deadly 2012 Benghazi attacks, the botched “Fast and Furious” gun sting and allegations of the IRS discriminating against conservative groups.

Issa also was a frequent presence on Fox News and other cable news, leading some Republicans to privately grumble that he was more interested in being in the spotlight than focusing on the issues themselves.

Still, Issa was received warmly last week by Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsMaryland postpones primary over coronavirus fears Maryland governor: 'Simply not enough supplies' on hand to tackle coronavirus Meadows joins White House facing reelection challenges MORE (D-Md.), the current Oversight and Reform Committee chairman, who publicly recognized his former GOP counterpart as someone he has learned from and respects.

"We're very pleased to have our distinguished former chairman in the room," Cummings said when Issa unexpectedly popped into the committee room for the panel’s contempt hearing for Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrDemocratic Senators urge FTC to prevent coronavirus price gouging Maduro pushes back on DOJ charges, calls Trump 'racist cowboy' DOJ charges Venezuela's Maduro with drug trafficking MORE and Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossTourism industry estimates 4.6 million travel-related jobs lost due to coronavirus 2020 census to run ads on 'Premio lo Nuestro' Can the US slap tariffs on auto imports? Not anymore MORE last week.

"Mr. Issa and I went toe-to-toe quite a bit, but when all the dust settled I have a lot of respect for him ... Taught me a lot and I'm sure I taught him a lot of things too,” Cummings said.

"We wish he hadn't taught you quite so well," Meadows joked in response.

Scott Wong and Niv Elis contributed.

Updated at 9:12 a.m.