GOP’s Issa rep­re­sents a test for Democrats seek­ing 2018 gains

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY TONY PERRY na­tional@wash­post.com David Weigel in Fort Laud­erdale, Fla., con­trib­uted to this re­port.

ocean­side, calif. — For three hours Satur­day, Rep. Dar­rell Issa (R-Calif.) en­dured pointed ques­tions, jeers and de­ri­sive laugh­ter dur­ing two suc­ces­sive town halls in this north­ern sub­urb of San Diego.

But this wasn’t just a mo­ment for Issa to let anx­ious con­stituents vent their wor­ries about im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, health-care changes or the first seven weeks of Pres­i­dent Trump’s ten­ure. It was a ma­jor first test of the Demo­cratic Party’s ef­forts to turn an­tipa­thy to­ward Trump into elec­toral gains in 2018. It was also a chance for Issa to show that he is will­ing to stand apart from Trump for a district that has rapidly grown more lib­eral in re­cent years.

“I do not work for the ex­ec­u­tive branch,” Issa said in an open­ing state­ment Satur­day at one of two morn­ing town hall meet­ings at a com­mu­nity cen­ter here. “I in­ves­ti­gated the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. I also in­ves­ti­gated the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Issa, 63, has been dis­tanc­ing him­self from Trump for some time. Widely seen as a par­ti­san flamethrower dur­ing his years lead­ing the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form and its many in­ves­ti­ga­tions of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Issa is more likely th­ese days to de­fend the bud­get of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency or to de­mand a rig­or­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of Rus­sian in­ter­ven­tion in the 2016 elec­tion.

He has good rea­son to mod­er­ate: Cal­i­for­nia’s 49th Con­gres­sional District, which en­com­passes the in­creas­ingly di­verse and lib­eral sub­ur­ban cities in north­ern San Diego County and south­ern Or­ange County, is no longer the safely Repub­li­can ter­rain that it was for Issa’s first eight elec­tions to Congress.

Last year, Issa won nar­rowly against a lawyer and re­tired Marine colonel, Dou­glas Ap­ple­gate, who has an­nounced plans to chal­lenge him again in 2018. Last week, en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer Mike Levin, an­other Demo­crat, an­nounced that he, too, plans to chal­lenge Issa.

On Satur­day, one ques­tioner noted that some Democrats have won­dered whether Trump is too emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble to be trusted with nu­clear weapons.

Issa’s an­swer stopped short of a full-throated show of sup­port for the new com­man­der in chief. If the is­sue comes up in front of the ap­pro­pri­ate body, he said, “I will vote my con­science.”

Yet Issa’s at­tempts to dis­tance him­self from Trump were met with de­ri­sion and boos. When he re­ferred to Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin as an “evil son of a blank” who sows chaos and then cap­i­tal­izes on it, an au­di­ence mem­ber yelled “so does Trump.” The crowd cheered.

A pro­tester out­side the com­mu­nity cen­ter held a sign that seemed to sum up the at­ti­tude of many, if not most, of the more than 1,000 who at­tended the two ses­sions: “Re­peal and Re­place the Pres­i­dent.”

One man wore a Rus­sian mil­i­tary hat. An­other wore a T-shirt that read, “Trump-Putin, ’16.” A woman held a sign: “Rus­sia-Gate Fol­low the Money.” An­other had a shirt sig­nal­ing that she is a “nasty woman,” a jibe Trump aimed at Hil­lary Clin­ton dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign de­bate.

Be­tween the two ses­sions, a re­porter asked Issa whether he is wor­ried about the 2018 con­gres­sional elec­tion be­com­ing a ref­er­en­dum on Trump.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Fact is that I’m go­ing to be with Trump some­times, against him some­times.”

Only a few of Issa’s col­leagues held town hall meet­ings after Congress’s work­week ended, but ques­tions about the Amer­i­can Health Care Act, as the House GOP plan to re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act is known, were ram­pant. Rep. Dou­glas A. Collins (R-Ga.), a sup­porter of the bill, was con­fronted in a Fri­day night tele-town hall by a man named Bill who de­manded that Repub­li­cans pass the re­peal pack­age of 2015. That has been the plan fa­vored by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and most of the con­ser­va­tive House Free­dom Cau­cus.

Collins as­sured the con­stituent that “the 2015 bill is in this pack­age that’s go­ing to be sent to the pres­i­dent,” which is not true, as the AHCA keeps some parts of the ACA that Repub­li­cans for­merly voted to re­peal.

Issa faced ques­tions about the Af­ford­able Care Act, too. He did not fully buy into the cur­rent GOP plan be­ing pro­moted by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). But he didn’t help him­self with many in the crowd when he re­ferred to the ACA as “Oba­macare,” which prompted the au­di­ence to boo and cry out, “the Af­ford­able Care Act.”

Issa re­sponded sharply, “Hey, it’s not af­ford­able.”

As at so many other town halls across the coun­try in re­cent weeks, no one asked Issa about lo­cal is­sues, not even about a re­cent de­ploy­ment of Marines from nearby Camp Pendle­ton to Syria.

That sug­gests the elec­torate is primed to turn the 2018 elec­tion into a ref­er­en­dum on Trump — some­thing of which Democrats are likely to try to take ad­van­tage.

After last year’s squeaker elec­tion in the 49th District, Democrats listed Issa as among the most vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­can in­cum­bents in 2018. The Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has hired a full-time or­ga­nizer in the district. In re­sponse, the GOP cam­paign com­mit­tee has in­cluded Issa among 10 House in­cum­bents who will re­ceive ad­di­tional help from the party.

HAYNE PALMOUR IV/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRI­BUNE VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rep. Dar­rell Issa (R-Calif.) speaks at one of two town hall meet­ings he held in Ocean­side, Calif., on Satur­day. He was not warmly re­ceived: The large crowds of­ten booed, jeered and shouted at him.

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