The lone Democrat running to fill the seat vacated by convicted California Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter was leading Tuesday's primary over former GOP Congressman Darrell Issa, seeking a return to the House after retiring two years ago.
Ammar Campa-Najjar had 34% of about 88,000 votes tabulated in the 50th District, while Issa had 25% and fellow Republican Carl DeMaio, a San Diego radio host and politcal commentator, was third with 21%. The top two finishers will advance to a runoff in November.
Campa-Najjar, a 31-year-old former Obama administration official, has fashioned himself a more moderate Democrat since he first ran for the seat two years ago. He is touting his local roots, Christian faith and gun ownership to woo independents and Republicans in Southern California's most conservative congressional district.
“You can vote for Trump and for me because it’s about putting country over party,” Campa-Najjar said while surrounded by supporters at Golden Hall in downtown San Diego.
He didn't declare victory but said he was confident he was headed for a November runoff and his likely opponent is Issa. Campa-Najjar said Issa served for more than 20 years in Congress and “we need fresh legs."
Issa didn't speak publicly after the polls closed Tuesday. In a statement, his campaign said: “The results aren’t complete yet but we believe what’s come in so far shows voters realize Darrell Issa is the conservative in the race who will help President Trump enact his agenda.”
DeMaio's campaign remained hopeful that as more votes are counted he would make it into the top two.
The 50th is a region of suburbs and farm towns east of San Diego that includes the city of Temecula in Riverside County. Republicans have an 11-point registration edge and the seat was considered safe until Hunter was indicted months ahead of the 2018 election. He narrowly defeated Campa-Najjar, a political unknown at the time, and was seeking re-election until he pleaded guilty and then resigned in January.
Issa and DeMaio share similar agendas that support Trump's stands on issues such as stricter immigration enforcement and gun rights. But each has tried to make voters believe the other is not truly in step with the president, who did not endorse either candidate.
It's been an expensive battle. Issa, a car alarm magnate who was among the wealthiest members of Congress, spent about $2.7 million. DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman, spent about $2 million.
Issa built a national reputation and a became favorite within the GOP when he chaired the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and served as the chief congressional antagonist to then-President Barack Obama. After narrowly winning reelection in 2016, Issa decided not to run again two years later in the 49th District where Democrats had been gaining ground for years.
Issa faced backlash even from Republican supporters for an advertisement that included references to headlines noting the sexual orientation of DeMaio, who is gay. Critics said it amounted to gay-baiting. Issa defended it, saying media outlets wrote the headlines and the ad was meant to highlight DeMaio's record.