EL CAJON, Calif. — Darrell Issa, a deep-pocketed businessman who garnered widespread admiration and scorn as one of former President Barack Obama’s chief antagonists, announced Thursday he will attempt a return to Congress to replace a fellow Republican.
Issa told a news conference he is seeking the Southern California seat held by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is running for a seventh term while facing charges of siphoning campaign funds for personal use.
“I believe that I have the history, the skills, the seniority and the capability to hit the ground running, not just for this district but for California — to help Republicans compete in what has become a very treacherous and difficult Congress, and to retake the majority,” Issa said in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon.
Hunter and Issa could wind up going head-to-head under California’s primary system, which allows the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to compete in the general election.
Issa’s entry brings more attention to what was already a closely watched race. It puts Hunter in an increasingly difficult position, given Issa’s wealth and long record of criticizing Obama, which could play well in one of Southern California’s last staunchly Republican districts.
Issa endeared himself to many conservatives as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 to 2015, where he was a vocal advocate for investigations into the Obama administration.
Last year, Hunter narrowly defeated Ammar Campa-Najjar, a young Democrat who came within 3.4 percentage points of winning the seat in his first run for Congress. He is running again in the March primary.
Campa-Najjar said Issa joining the field of candidates “just highlights the fact that Hunter is vulnerable and we’re viable, and that Washington insiders are scrambling to find somebody who could effectively challenge our campaign.”
Issa, a former nine-term congressman who made his fortune through a car-alarm company, formed an exploratory committee last month. He retired before the 2018 election from a district divided between San Diego and Orange counties that he narrowly won two years earlier. Democrat Mike Levin won the seat last November.
Issa’s decision comes after his Senate confirmation hearing to be director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency was delayed indefinitely.
Larry Wilske, a retired Navy SEAL, also is in the race, but he plans to drop out and back Issa.
Wilske said Issa, 65, is a safer bet that Hunter’s district will remain in Republican hands, and his many years in the House pave the way for him to become a ranking member on committees.
“He is rock solid and has enough financially to lock this down,” Wilske said.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, who also was running for Hunter’s seat, said he too plans to bow out and back Issa.
“I think he’s the one in the best position to win and get something done,” Wells said. “We need to get back to the business of having a presence in Washington.”
Hunter, 42, is scheduled to be tried in January for allegedly siphoning campaign money for personal use. The former Marine combat veteran is also being challenged by Republican Carl DeMaio, a radio host and former San Diego city councilman with broad name recognition.
The San Diego County Republican Party is scheduled to consider an endorsement Oct. 14.
Republicans have a big advantage in voter registration in California’s 50th district, which covers east San Diego County and a small part of southern Riverside County.
Hunter won a sixth term last year, barely two months after he and his wife were charged with using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses ranging from groceries to golf trips. Margaret Hunter has pleaded guilty to one corruption count and agreed to co-operate with investigators.
Hunter, whose father represented the district in Congress for 28 years, has pleaded not guilty and framed the charges as a political attack by prosecutors sympathetic to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid.
Julie Watson, The Associated Press