Will Applegate’s Rematch With Issa Be Successful?

Nathan L. Gonzales December 14, 2016 · 10:03 AM EST

No one paid much attention to Doug Applegate’s challenge to California Rep. Darrell Issa until there were only five months left in the campaign, and the Democrat came within 2 points of knocking off the Republican incumbent.

Applegate didn’t waste any time and has already announced his 2018 candidacy, but will more time be enough to put him over the top? 

Two years ago, Republican Paul Chabot came up just short in California’s 31st District in a race no one was really paying attention to after Democrat Pete Aguilar exorcised the open-primary demons to make the general election. (In 2012, two Republicans finished atop the crowded open primary field even though Barack Obama had easily carried the district four years earlier.)

Aguilar won the 2014 race, 51 percent to 49 percent, and Chabot announced his intention to run again less than a week after he conceded. “It’s now or never,” Chabot told me at the time.

Because his underfunded candidacy came close to victory without any significant outside help from the National Republican Congressional Committee or other GOP-friendly group, he hoped that the 2014 result would cause Republicans to take a fresh look at the race and put him over the top the next time.

On Nov. 8, Chabot lost his rematch by a dozen points, 56 percent to 44 percent, in a race that was never considered part of the House battleground for the second consecutive cycle.

Applegate didn’t suffer from a lack of attention, running against the congressman who led the Benghazi investigation. He started planning to run early in the cycle, though national Democrats didn’t consider the race a takeover opportunity until he finished 5 points behind Issa, 51 percent to 46 percent, in the June primary. 

Issa won the general election race 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent, according to semiofficial results from the California secretary of state’s office, and it’s not hard to see how Applegate can overcome a deficit of less than a point in 24 months. But it’s never quite that simple.

Applegate has lost any element of surprise, turnout can be less favorable for Democrats in midterm elections in California and now Republicans have two years to drive up Applegate’s negatives. His opposition research file includes temporary restraining orders from an ex-wife and allegations of stalking and verbal abuse.

Not only is Applegate facing a drawn-out battle with the wealthiest member of Congress, he faces a lawsuit as well. Issa is suing him for libel and $10 million in damages.

The good news for Applegate is there there is some precedent in California for what he’s trying to do.

In 2010, Democrat Ami Bera lost to GOP Rep. Dan Lungren 50 percent to 43 percent in a Northern California district, only to come back and defeat Lungren by 4 points two years later.

In 2004, Democrat Jerry McNerney got wiped out by GOP Rep. Richard W. Pombo 61 percent to 39 percent, but he rode the Democratic wave two years later, winning a rematch 53 percent to 47 percent.

Of course, Applegate could go the way of Michael Eggman, the Northern California Democrat who lost to GOP Rep. Jeff Denham 56 percent to 44 percent in 2014, and 52 to 48 percent this year; or Francine Busby, the San Diego-area Democrat who lost a 2004 race to GOP Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a spring 2006 special election in the same district, a 2006 regular general election, and a 2010 bid.