Democratic Congressional candidate Mike Levin has a slim edge over Republican Diane Harkey in the Orange and San Diego County-shared 49th district, according to a New York Times poll that concluded Sunday evening.
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The poll results came with the caveats that it surveyed a small sample–502–of district voters and the 10 point lead enjoyed by Levin could be offset by a 4.7 -point margin of error, 8 percent of those responding said they haven’t made up their minds and the traditional potential for low Democratic voter turnout in the midterm Nov. 6 election could give Harkey an advantage.
People between the age of 30 and 64 were the bulk of the respondents to the telephone poll at 57 percent, followed by seniors at 33 percent, then 18 to 29 year-olds at 13 percent. The poll was conducted over five days and 41,000 people were contacted. Throughout, the poll was available on line.
“I do see the 49th as the most winnable of the four (Congressional) races that Democrats are fighting hard for [in Orange County] and that’s because of the changing demographics of that particular district,” said Chapman University political science professor and elections expert Mike Moodian.
Levin wrote in a text message Sunday night “we aren’t slowing down until we flip the 49th. We are sprinting to the finish line and leaving no stone unturned.”
Harkey could not be reached Sunday night to respond to questions about the poll results.
Democrats are trying to win 23 House of Representatives seats nationally, including four in Orange County, to take control of the 435 member House.`
Levin hasn’t held an elected position before, while Harkey — chairwoman of the Board of Equalization — is a former three-term Assemblywoman. Levin is an environmental attorney and co-founded Sustain OC, a clean energy advocacy group and Harkey worked in the banking and finance industry for 30 years.
“This is still an anti-incumbent period in American politics,” said UC San Diego political science department chair Thad Kousser. “So having a career politician running against an entrepreneur on the Democrat side, I think that’s good messaging (to voters).”
The poll found 55 percent of district voters disapprove of President Donald Trump, while 41 percent approve; and 54 percent of respondents prefer that Democrats take over the U.S. House of Representatives.
Moodian said it could be a blow to Democrats if they don’t win the seat.
“If they can’t win that race, it’s going to be a bad day for local Democrats in Orange County and San Diego County,” Moodian said. “A Democrat barely lost that election two years ago and now there’s one who is well funded … it’s prime for a Democratic victory.”
Levin is advocating universal healthcare, a $15 federal minimum wage and clean energy sources. He supports gun control, including banning assault weapons. Levin is against any privatization of the public school system while supporting free tuition at public universities for families that make less than $125,000 annually.
“It’s a coastal district and our research that we’ve done at Chapman shows that we’ve seen a lot of evolving views in Orange County particularly as it relates to climate change and environmental issues … Levin has done an excellent job positioning himself as an environmentalist … that will serve him very well,” said Moodian, a coordinator of Chapman University’s OC Annual Community Survey.
Harkey opposes offshore drilling, wants to balance climate change regulations and business interests and advocates visas for Dreamers, although she is against amnesty. She also opposes former President Barack Obama’s Iran deal and calls for tougher sanctions against the country.
“The specter of Donald Trump hangs over every Republican in California, but Diane Harkey is not a Donald Trump candidate. Voters in this district know her name … she’s part of the Republican establishment and she has the discipline to stay on the message of keeping taxes low. Which still resonates in Orange and San Diego,” Kousser said.
He also said it could be difficult for the candidates to run on a platform of local issues because whoever wins is new to Congress.
“Neither candidate can promise to bring home a lot because they’re going to be junior members …(Retiring Rep. Darrell) Issa could’ve promised a lot,” Kousser said. “Neither candidate is going to be able to back up the promise of bringing home the pork.”
The district touches the most southern cities in Orange County, including San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and San Clemente. The majority of the 49th stretches down the west side of San Diego county, ending before La Jolla. It also includes the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, which separates the Orange County portion of the district from the populous San Diego County sections.
Issa (R-Vista) announced in January he would not seek reelection. He narrowly won reelection in 2016 by a margin of less than one percentage point — beating Democratic challenger Doug Applegate by just over 1,600 votes.
There were no Republican candidates running in the district until Issa’s January announcement — then a flood of eight GOP candidates stepped into the race, including Harkey. Levin had been gearing up his campaign throughout most of 2017.
Since joining the race in January, Harkey has raised $702,000, while Levin has amassed $2.6 million, according to campaign finance disclosures as of June 30 on the Federal Elections Committee website.
The next round of financial disclosures won’t be out until after Oct. 17.
According to the latest voter registration statistics compiled by Voice of OC using data from the two counties’ registrars, Republicans have a 5 percentage point edge in voter registration.
Of the nearly 394,000 registered voters, about 140,500 are Republicans and a little over 122,000 are Democrats.
San Diego County holds the majority of voters in the district at 296,000.
When broken down by county, Democrats and Republicans are nearly equal in San Diego County at roughly 97,000 for each party. But in Orange County, Republicans have 43,600 voters, compared to 25,200 registered Democrats.
Republicans have been slowly losing voters in the district since 2012, when the GOP had a 13-point margin over Democrats in voter registration.
Kousser said both parties have been moving to extremes, which pushed many voters to register as no preference.
The no party preference voters consist of over a quarter of the district at nearly 110,000 registered voters.
“I think clearly polling all across the state shows independent (no preference) voters breaking against the President’s party. And this is the story we see in midterm after midterm,” Kousser said, comparing it to the 2010 Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“In 2010 Barack Obama lost (the House) because … independent voters swung against him and his voter base didn’t turn out,” Kousser said.
The district is also home to the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which houses nuclear waste within 50 yards of the ocean.
“It’s only 100 feet from the ocean, 16,000 tons of nuclear waste. What I’d like to see … is federal legislation to allow states like California to set stricter nuclear waste safety standards,” Levin said in a phone interview Sept. 19. “We have to get that waste out of there as soon as possible … and I won’t need on the job training to make it happen.”
Levin said the environmental issues in the district helped attract no party preference voters, and even cross party lines.
“And I think we were able to reach a lot of them who care about the quality of our air, water and coastline … it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat … you want to get the nuclear waste off our coast,” Levin said.
Harkey didn’t respond to requests for a phone interview or answer email questions, but her website lists the waste at the decommissioned nuclear plant as a priority.
Levin’s campaign paid for a website that appears in the top slot when Harkey’s name is Googled. The website contains a video that attempts to tie Harkey to her husband’s business, Point Center Financial. In 2013, an Orange County judge ordered her husband Dan Harkey to pay $4.5 million to investors for breach of contract. Diane Harkey has repeatedly denied involvement — most recently in a Q&A story published Sept. 21 by the San Diego Union Tribune.
“Here’s what works to Harkey’s benefit: Harkey spent years in the State Assembly … she was never an outlandish Assemblymember who was gaining headlines for saying outlandish things. She always voted the party line, but I think that will help her,” Moodian said.
Moodian also noted the increase of women running for Congress this year.
“I think this is a year of the woman in many ways — so that certainly will help her in the 49th,” he said.
Mail in ballots begin going to voters Oct. 9 and must be mailed back to the Registrar of Voters by Oct. 31, according to Registrar Neal Kelly.
Over 47 percent of voters cast a ballot for a Congressional candidate in the June primary election — nearly double 2014’s primary election when only 25 percent of voters participated.
Voter turnout for November general elections is typically higher than primaries — 45 percent cast a vote in the 2014 midterm general election. That number is a huge drop from participation levels during presidential election years. In 2012, just over 72 percent of voters cast a ballot for the 49th Congressional race and in 2016 just over 80 percent of voters cast a ballot in the Congressional race.
Just over 55,000 voters are Latino in the district, according to Political Data Inc. Nearly 19,000 voters in the district are Asian — Filipinos are the largest of the Asian voters at 4,464, followed closely by Chinese voters at 4,202. Over 46,000 of all registered voters are immigrants, according to the voter data company.
The New York Times poll shows 72 percent of the respondents were white and of that 51 percent said they will vote Democratic. Only 12 percent of respondents were Latino and 59 percent said they will vote for Levin. While Asians represent only five percent of people polled, 59 percent also said they will vote Democratic. The New York Times warns not to “overinterpret” the data because of the small sample size.
According to the Census Bureau website, 45 percent of the residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The median annual income is roughly $88,000 for the nearly 750,000 living in the district.
About 157,000 people have jobs in management, business, science or art industries, according to the Census Bureau. Sales and office jobs follow at 78,000 and service industry jobs at 62,000. Roughly 52,000 district residents work maintenance, production, transportation or construction jobs.
“It’s a microcosm of California in so many ways. There’s a heavy military presence (Camp Pendleton) in that district … you also have coastal elites … you also have working class Republicans and working class Democrats in Oceanside, in San Clemente, in San Juan Capistrano,” Moodian said. “It’s not a homogenous district. You have a very diverse district in terms of socioeconomic status.”
Election polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight predicts Levin has a 90 percent chance of beating Harkey by a nine point margin as of Sept. 23. The polling aggregator also states Democrats have an 80 percent chance nationwide to secure at least 23 House seats, which would give them the majority.
“That’s the most optimistic chances that I’ve seen anywhere. The trend in this district has been so strong, that it scared one of the most powerful incumbents (Issa) out of the race,” Kousser said.
Issa sits on the Judiciary, Government Oversight and Foreign Affairs House committees.
Outside of the 2016 election when Issa was narrowly re-elected by less than one percentage point, he enjoyed victories over candidates in double digit margins.
“My thought is that for Levin to be successful, he’s going to have to look at her legislative record. Harkey, at the same time, she’ll be able to attack Levin for somebody who has limited experience … try to paint some of these Democrats as hardcore progressive,” Moodian said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio