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Republican Board of Equalization Chairwoman Diane Harkey faces Democratic challenger Mike Levin for the 49th Congressional District’s open U.S. House of Representatives seat Nov. 6 and recent polls show Levin ahead of Harkey.

Levin, a 40-year old environmental attorney who’s pushes for clean energy, has been campaigning since March 2017. Harkey, the 67-year old former Assemblywoman, didn’t enter the race until January when Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) announced he would not seek reelection.

In 2016, Issa narrowly won reelection by less than one percentage point, or 1,621 votes. Hillary Clinton also took the district by more than seven percentage points, defeating Donald Trump in district in the presidential race.

Because Clinton took the district and Issa’s narrow reelection, national Democrats targeted the 49th Congressional District as part of their effort to secure at least 23 more seats in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, which would give them majority control.

An Oct. 24 poll from the New York Times shows Levin ahead of Harkey by 14 points, up from the Sept. 23 poll that showed him at a 10-point lead.

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, a political newcomer, said “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.”

Harkey also touted the economy during the NBC debate, while Levin said the tax bill needs to be reworked to improve the economy.

“I don’t think that you can deny economically that we are moving forward … the biggest problem we have in this district is finding qualified people for these positions and that’s a good thing to have,” Harkey said of businesses not being able to hire enough employees.

“I think it starts with tax policy,” Levin said. “The problem is that we need infrastructure and we need housing, but instead we’ve given money for infrastructure … away for the tax plan.”

Both candidates said they would like to incentivize local business and colleges to work together on internship programs for students in the district to help fill job positions.

Since the June primary, Levin has been endorsed by former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Although Trump endorsed Harkey, her endorsement page doesn’t list Trump, but lists a hosts of other Republican endorsements, including Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). Trump endorsed Harkey via Twitter Aug. 20. And while she hasn’t had the big rallies Levin has, Harkey has been outspoken against the state’s 12-cent per gallon gas tax and urged voters to vote “yes” on Proposition 6, which would repeal it. Money from the gas tax is slated for road and freeway repairs.

According to Open Secrets, Levin raised $5.5 million in campaign funds, while Harkey raised $1.5 million.

Once considered a Republican stronghold, election handicapper websites Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report consider the 49th Congressional district leaning Democratic.

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.

Republicans hold a little more than a four-point edge in voter registration, as of Oct. 26. But, in San Diego County, it’s the first time since new district lines were drawn in 2011 that Democrats have taken a slim lead in voter registration. They’re ahead by 838 voters. In Orange County, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 18,000 voters.

The Republican point advantage has been slowly shrinking since 2012, when the GOP had a 13-point margin over Democrats in voter registration. During that time, the no party preference voters grew from 24 percent to nearly 28 percent.

According to the Political Data Inc. vote tracker just over 285,000 early voting ballots were mailed to district voters. As of Oct. 26, nearly 46,000 have been returned. More Republican ballots have been returned than other parties at 43 percent of the early vote. Democratic ballots have a 33 percent return and no party preference and other parties are at 23 percent.

In the June 2018 primary election, Democratic candidates garnered 51 percent of the vote, while Republican candidates had 48 percent of the vote, according to Political Data Inc.

Voter turnout for the 2018 June midterm primary election was 47 percent — higher than the 2014  November midterm general election at 45 percent. The 2014 June midterm primary turnout was just 25 percent.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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