Desperate in Southern California: Darrell Issa's 'back to the future' primary campaign misfires

Southern California voters were transported to a different era in the last few weeks, as they turned on their TV sets and found that they had arrived, flash bang, back in 2004.

Booming through their screens was a vintage homophobic advertisement from former Republican Congressman 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, who fled his 49th District Congressional seat north of San Diego in 2018 after sensing he wouldn’t be reelected — and apparently has banked his current prospects in the neighboring 50th District (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’s old seat) on an ad “which prominently notes that his fellow Republican, Carl DeMaio, is gay,” as if that were a disqualifying factor for public office, or frankly relevant at all.

The race to hold California’s reddest seat boils down to one between Issa, formerly the richest member of Congress, and DeMaio, the visionary radio host and conservative activist who I previously named in The Hill as the possible savior of the decimated California Republican Party.

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Well, if this is Issa’s idea of persuasion, it’s an indicator of just how out of touch the ultra-millionaire has become.

If he thinks yelling “gay guy” at his opponent is a winner in 2020 in San Diego County (just east of America's largest city with a Republican Mayor in a nation almost bereft of them), a place where Republicans theoretically need to appeal to gay and lesbian voters — Issa has the wrong people advising him. In fact, the head of the San Diego GOP “described the ad as highly inappropriate” and called for it to be taken down. How often do you see that?

And if Issa thinks this will persuade GOP primary voters, who are desperate for some fresh energy and haven’t faced a sexual orientation litmus test since the blackberry retired, he is just not that good at politics.

DeMaio is gay, and he’s open about. He’s conservative. We’ve all moved on from that old play book, and this kind of identity politics will likely turn voters off.

To this Issa has added a second tv spot that, to the untrained eye, suggests he’s been endorsed by Trump — while carefully avoiding saying so.

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Contrary to what Issa’s ad implies, the president has not endorsed Issa. The ad features a video of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE talking about Issa having endorsed Trump, paired with a text graphic that says “I endorse you 100%.”

So… who is Issa: a guy who pretends to have Trump’s support, or the lone Republican to call for a special prosecutor on the Russia investigation? And does he think GOP primary voters are so dumb that calling the other guy gay and implying a Trump endorsement when there isn’t one will get him over the finish line?

Voters in the district aren’t looking for a Congressional has-been parroting stale talking points. They’re looking for somebody to take their fight to Washington and get things done.

Issa avoided getting mucked up by a Democratic opponent in his original district and — rather than defending it from flipping to the Democrats — simply surrendered it without a fight. Now he apparently thinks he can simply cut a seven-figure check and the neighboring district will roll over and send him back to Congress, where people think he’s important.

What Issa didn’t bargain for is the energetic DeMaio, who’s breaking fundraising records (he raked in the highest total for a non-incumbent last quarter) — an indication he’s seriously connecting with the GOP grassroots. The sheer sum of DeMaio’s cash-on-hand means Issa can’t simply buy his way out of this one, at least not easily.

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Now ‘Desperate Darrell’ is feeling the heat — and reaching for whatever he can grab to throw.

While Issa’s campaign doubles down on the dumbest ads of the political cycle, DeMaio just deployed over 30 fresh-faced conservative college students to canvass the district for the next month. It’s hard to think of a more appealing image to carry a Republican campaign to the finish line.

And it’s hard to think of a bigger contrast between one candidate who is well past his prime and another who is about to bring some serious heat to Congress.

Albert Eisenberg is a Philadelphia-based conservative commentator and political consultant who works on LGBT and urban issues from the right. He formerly served as communications director for the Philadelphia Republican Party. Follow him on Twitter @Albydelphia