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Two of the Republican candidates most familiar to voters in the 49th District race, Republicans Rocky Chavez and Kristin Gaspar, didn’t fare well Tuesday night.
With three Democrats all within striking distance of second place, the party appears to have ducked the fate it feared — getting locked out of the November ballot — in the 49th Congressional District. But anyone hoping for a clear resolution will have to wait.
As election night wound down, officials were still tallying votes for the race to replace Rep. Darrell Issa, which attracted national attention.
The early results put Republican Diane Harkey, chair of the state Board of Equalization, way out in front, followed by three Democrats — environmental attorney Mike Levin, former nonprofit CEO Sara Jacobs and former Marine Doug Applegate, all within about 4 percentage points of one another.
Republicans have the voter registration edge in the coastal district, which spans portions of Orange and San Diego counties, but Democrats were on pace to earn a higher number of votes.
Although Levin was poised to take the second spot on the November ballot, it could still take a day or more to shake out.
Democrats, said Ryan Clumpner, a political consultant, “have multiple candidates now who would be in a position to run for lower office. But now that they’ve tasted a congressional race, will they want to be humble and step down to a lower office?”
Though the final numbers aren’t quite certain yet, we do know the fates of two Republican candidates who won’t advance.
The politician who stands to lose the most by this primary could be the one most familiar to San Diego voters: Kristin Gaspar.
In 2016, Gaspar narrowly won a seat on the County Board of Supervisors over Democrat Dave Roberts in a district that includes Encinitas, Escondido and parts of northern San Diego.
Gaspar’s win wasn’t immediately clear on Election Night in 2016, but she gained ground as the remaining mail and provisional ballots, which tend to skew Democrat and independent, came in — suggesting that her career was being built on centrist appeal.
The district is no longer a safe space for the GOP. But since announcing her bid for Congress, Gaspar has moved to the right, appearing regularly on Fox News. She pushed the county to join with the Trump administration’s lawsuit challenging California’s so-called sanctuary laws (even though the deadline to do so had already passed).
It will likely be a point of contention in her 2020 re-election bid, especially with Trump on the ballot. For weeks, consultants have quietly questioned whether her embrace of the Trump administration and subsequent White House visit were worth it politically.
But Stephen Puetz, a political consultant, said he doesn’t believe Gaspar will pay a price for her push against sanctuary policies. The general population understands the difference between people who are militarily anti-immigrant and someone like Gaspar, who’s focused her opposition to state sanctuary laws and undocumented immigrants with criminal records.
“She’ll have a long career in politics if she’d like one,” he said.
Puetz was not directly involved in the 49th District race, but he conducted research for talk radio host Carl DeMaio, who decided not to run, he said. Gaspar’s chances became difficult after Harkey locked up the party’s big endorsements and began coalescing the base.
Hours before the first results dropped, Gaspar emailed her supporters to thank them, and struck a note of bipartisanship.
“It’s time for a new generation in Congress who will set aside the bickering and focus on getting things done,” she said. “I’ve demonstrated my ability to govern effectively at multiple levels of government, and on both sides of the aisle.”
Jason Roe, who consulted for Gaspar’s campaign, told me that the perception of Gaspar as a hardliner on immigration was not fair. For proof, he said she supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was ended by Trump and provided a pathway to citizenship for people who were brought to the country as children.
Gaspar’s re-election is still two years away, and there aren’t many local Democratic officeholders in the district who could rise up to challenge her, he said.
Perhaps the most disappointing showing in the race came from Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, who finished last among the serious Republican candidates.
A former Marine and legislator whose district includes Camp Pendleton, Chavez emerged after Issa bowed out of the race as the immediate frontrunner but faced attacks from both Republicans and Democrats. They attacked him for essentially the same thing — voting occasionally with Democrats.
One TV ad, created by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, faulted Chavez for voting yes on the state budget and helping to renew California’s cap and trade program.
In an interview Sunday, Chavez seemed resigned to the possibility of losing but content with the image that would follow him afterwards. He would like people to think of him as “thoughtful” rather than “moderate” and therefore open to debate, he said.
Of the cap-and-trade vote that came back to haunt him in this race, he said: “I think five years from now, people will say that was a good decision.”
National Democratic operatives responsible for the negative TV barrage may have caused real damage in Sacramento for bipartisanship.
“If I was the Republican leader,” Puetz said, “I would keep that ad on my phone, showing anyone who ever crossed the line.”
Chavez did what he thought was right, breaking with some GOP insiders, and his willingness to cross the aisle was used against him.
“That’s tough for Sacramento Democrats in the future,” Puetz said.