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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) led a rally for Democratic Congressional candidate Mike Levin in Oceanside Friday night in a gymnasium filled with roughly 1,000 people, where Sanders bashed the Republicans and President Donald Trump over the tax bill, the healthcare fight and wage inequality.
“My guess is that this election right here in the 49th district is going to be a very close election,” Sanders said in a separate impromptu speech to the overflow crowd outside the gymnasium.
“You have a situation in this country where young people do not have permanent housing. Brothers and sisters, we are not a third world country. This is the United States of America and we’re not going to give a trillion in tax breaks to the one percent, and then create a situation where students don’t have adequate housing or food security. That’s not what this country is supposed to be about,” Sanders said to the crowd inside at MiraCosta College.
Levin, who’s running for the 49th Congressional district seat, said, “On Nov. 6, this country faces what I believe to be the most important midterm election in our history.”
In addition to rallying for Levin, Sanders took shots at Trump.
“Presidents of our country have always understood one thing, whether they were conservative or liberal … was to bring our people together. And for the first time in the modern history of the country, for cheap political gains, this guy thinks he can win raw votes by getting one group of people to hate another group of people,” Sanders said.
The 49th Congressional District is mainly in coastal San Diego County, including Camp Pendleton, but it includes the southern portion of Orange County.
National Democrats have targeted the 49th Congressional District in part of their effort to secure at least 23 seats in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives, which would give them majority control. Hillary Clinton beat President Donald Trump in the district by at least seven percentage points. District Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) was narrowly re-elected by less than one percentage point in 2016. In January, Issa announced he would not seek reelection.
Levin, an environmental attorney is facing Republican Diane Harkey, current chairwoman of the Board of Equalization and a former Assemblywoman. 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.
But Sanders’ visit might damage Levin’s campaign, according to California elections scholars.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword. Mike levin is basically in the lead in this race and you know it may well lose as many votes as he gains. His advantage is he’s been able to run as a business Democrat,” University of California, San Diego political science department Chairman Thad Kousser said in a Friday phone interview.
“I think Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton would be safe endorsers in this district. Bernie Sanders brings a huge amount of energy and excitement on the left, but I’m not sure how he plays with centrist voters in this district who want to see a … clean environment, a strong defense and low taxes,” said Kousser, who also specializes in California elections.
University of California, Irvine political science professor Graeme Boushey said Sanders’ visit shows the 49th district race is on the radar, but also acknowledged it could adversely affect Levin’s campaign.
“They’re sending Bernie (Sanders) in for a reason, probably to mobilize progressives and get them to turn out,” Boushey said in a Friday phone interview. “Many of the independents (no party preference) who … find the populist message appealing, it could affect them in a positive way, or turn them off.”
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.
Boushey said it was beneficial for Orange County Democratic Congressional candidates that Sanders did not campaign in the County. He also said a prospect of a future presidential run could play a factor for at least one Congressional district.
“(Harley) Rouda is trying to run himself as a moderate and a centrist … so you can imagine him wanting to keep an arm’s distance from Sanders,” Boushey said. “Remember, (Katie) Porter is a (Sen. Elizabeth) Warren disciple, so Bernie’s (Sanders) playing presidential politics.”
Rouda is running against nearly 30-year Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) and Porter is a Democratic candidate in the 45th district running against Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine). Porter has been endorsed by Warren (D-Mass).
During the rally, Sanders lambasted corporate “greed.”
“Today we tell corporate America that we, Mike (Levin) and I, and others, that we’re going to stop this corporate greed and create an economy that works for the middle class,” Sanders said, adding that he’s visited Colorado, Indiana and Iowa over the past week where he rallied for other Democratic candidates and spoke to working families.
The 49th 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.
It’s home to 401,000 registered voters as of Oct. 26, according to aggregate data from the registrars of voters in both counties. The bulk of voters, nearly 300,000 are in San Diego County, while roughly 101,000 are Orange County residents.
Levin told the rally crowd he predicts two different futures based on voter turnout.
“One, you stay home during election day … your healthcare gets taken away. In that future, the feeling of apathy gets worse. You feel more and more disconnected from your government. More unseen, more unheard,” Levin said.
The other future, Levin said, “Government is valuing your education and helping you manage those onerous (student) loans … government becomes a lot less corrupt and humane … they listen, they see you, they are you … The irony is that you get to decide which of these futures come to pass. You have that power. For those of you that brought ballots tonight, you hold that power.”
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.
“I’m asking you to not only come out and vote or him, I’m asking you to drag out your friends, your family, your coworkers,” Sanders said. “Mike (Levin) understands that we need an economy and a government that works for all of us and not just the one percent.”
Poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight considers the district solidly Democratic and gives Levin a 97 percent chance of winning with 56 percent of the vote, as of Oct. 26.
According to the Political Data Inc. vote tracker, 51 percent of votes went for a Democratic candidate in the June primary and 48 percent for a Republican candidate.
“And unless Mike (Levin) is elected, unless Democrats gain control of the house, we’re going to continue to see a government which gives huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people and ignores the needs of working families — we cannot allow that to happen,” Sanders said. “A week from Tuesday will be the most important midterm election in the history of our country.”
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