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Democratic Congressional candidate Mike Levin is leading Republican Diane Harkey by 14 points heading into the Nov. 6 election, according to a New York Times poll of the 49th district released Wednesday night.
Levin’s lead exceeds the 4.7-point margin of error and the poll shows Levin gained momentum since the Sept. 23 poll, when he was ahead by 10 points.
Hillary Clinton took the district in southern Orange County and San Diego County by eight points in 2016 and voter registration since the 2011 Congressional redistricting shows the number of registered Republicans shrinking, as Democrats and no party preference (NPP) voters grow.
“It’s so interesting that this district has become one where, until the primary in 2016, everyone thought of this as solidly red district. And it’s still a district where Republicans lead by about five points … the political transformation of this district from safe Republican to safe Democratic in two years, shows that it’s more than just the demographic shift,” said Thad Kousser, elections expert and University of California, San Diego political science professor and department chairman.
Democrats targeted the district because of Clinton’s success and district Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-Vista) narrow 2016 reelection and retirement announcement in January. National Democrats have also targeted the 39th, 45th and 48th California Congressional districts in Orange County in their effort to win the House.
Since becoming a Congressman for the 49th district in 2001, Issa easily won reelection, beating his opponents by double-digit margins. But in 2016, he narrowly won reelection by less than one percentage point, or 1,621 votes, when Democrat Doug Applegate, a retired Marine Colonel, ran against him. In January, Issa announced he would not seek reelection.
Republicans had 41.5 percent of registered voters in the district in 2012, compared to nearly 29 percent for Democrats. Heading into November’s election, Republicans hold almost 36 percent of registered voters while Democrats have 31 percent. During that time period, the NPP voters grew from 24 percent to close to 28 percent of registered voters.
Levin, an environmental attorney, is looking to capture some Republicans who want clean energy and environmental policies, in addition to NPP voters. Harkey, chair of the state Board of Equalization and former assemblywoman, has been touting her legislative record, the economy and her stance against the state’s gas tax to turn out voters.
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 includes the decommissioned San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and the U.S. Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, which separates the Orange County portion of the district from the populous San Diego County sections.
During their first debate at NBC San Diego studios Oct. 2, moderators asked the two candidates where they differ from their party leaders.
Harkey said she differs with President Donald Trump on some environmental issues, said she’s against offshore drilling and criticized the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions included in the Republican tax bill.
“I also had a little bit of pause with the tax reform bill … help us get more SALT refund from the property tax,” Harkey said.
Levin said he’s more aggressive on alternative energy sources.
“I think I’m more aggressive when it comes to clean energy … I think we need to get over our dependence on fossil fuels as soon as we can,” Levin said.
University of California, Irvine political science professor and California elections scholar Graeme Bushy said the backdrop of the Trump administration this election hurts Harkey and benefits Levin. He also said Harkey’s association with her husband’s business, which came under legal fire in 2013, hurt her from the start.
“One of the first things that happened is Levin’s not Trump … and given how the margins were for Issa, that was already going to give him an advantage and to be an unknown Republican whose start to voters is a scandal, that’s a bad starting place,” Boushey said.
He also said the tax reform is complicated for not just Harkey, but Republicans in other coastal districts, like the 48th.
“Tax reform — this is a tricky issue for The Republicans to play. Because the state and local tax exemption cap is going to hammer higher income voters … these are places where having homes property values north of $1 million is the norm,” Boushey said.
Levin’s campaign paid for a website containing a video that attempts to tie Harkey to her husband’s business, Point Center Financial. In 2013, an Orange County judge ordered her husband to pay $4.5 million to investors for breach of contract. Harkey has repeatedly denied involvement, most recently in a Q&A story published Sept. 21 by the San Diego Union Tribune.
In the New York Times poll, 56 percent of respondents said they disapprove of President Trump, while 38 percent approve and six percent are undecided. A slight majority of respondents, 53 percent, said they want Democrats to take the majority of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, while 42 percent said they want Republicans to keep the majority and five percent are undecided.
“The biggest part of [the shifting political demographic] is the national Republican brand right now. And in a district that Hillary Clinton carried by a wide margin, it’s hard to be the candidate endorsed by Donald Trump,” Kousser said.
Elections specialists, including Kousser and Boushey, find that coastal Republicans tend to view environmental policies differently than inland Republicans.
“He’s got a business background and environmentalist credentials,” Kousser said.
“Levin has a huge advantage on those issues they care about. The Public Policy Institute of California has polling on the voter and environmental regulation is on the top of the mind of many voters — thats a big issue,” Graeme said.
According to the Political Data Inc. vote tracker, 51 percent of votes went for a Democratic candidate in the June primaries and 48 percent for a Republican candidate.
As of Oct. 24, the tracker shows most absentee ballot returns are Republican ballots at 45 percent, while Democrats have 32 percent of early returns and NPP and other voters have 23 percent. There were nearly 284,000 ballots mailed to voters and almost 30,000 were returned as of Wednesday.
“If Diane Harkey wins, it will be saying, yet again, polls missed the silent Trump voter … so if she wins, it probably won’t because she changes dynamics,” Kousser said.
Over 47 percent of voters cast a ballot for a Congressional candidate in the 49th District during the June primary election — nearly double 2014’s primary election when only 25 percent of voters participated.
Boushey said non-presidential year elections have lower turnout than presidential elections, which benefit Republicans.
“Its fundamental in midterm elections. And if Republicans turnout in midterm numbers and Democrats stay home, then Harkey can turn this out … but it seems unlikely,” Boushey said. “We’re looking at turnout numbers and voter participation in the primaries in 2018 and it’s the highest it’s been since 2008, when Obama was in the primaries, so that’s remarkable.”
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