In 2012, Rep. Darrell Issa earned the scorn of many pro-abortion rights advocates when the California Republican excluded Sandra Fluke from a hearing about birth control coverage under the 2010 health care law.
Fluke, a law school student at the time, became a lightning rod. Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut.” Democrats rushed to her defense and gave her a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Now, with Issa facing the most serious challenge to his eight-term tenure representing California’s 49th District, Fluke is among many progressive and Democratic activists and operatives entering the race to help his opponent, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate
“I first met Col. Applegate at an event and his campaign reached out to me,” Fluke said. “I wouldn’t support Col. Applegate unless I thought he was a good choice.”
Applegate ran surprisingly close in California’s open primary in June, winning 45.5 percent of the vote compared to Issa’s 50.8 percent.
The Democrat has since been seen as someone who could give the wealthiest member of Congress a run for his money. A poll conducted for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last month showed Applegate ahead by 4 points, 46 to 42 percent. But a subsequent Republican poll from earlier this month gave the incumbent a 9-point lead, 48 to 39 percent.
Issa, the former chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has been one of the loudest and most influential critics of the Obama administration. During his chairmanship from 2011 to 2015, he investigated the 2012 Benghazi attack, the 2010 health care law, the Solyndra green energy scandal, and the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking case which led to Attorney General Eric Holder being held in contempt of Congress in 2012.
“Darrell Issa hasn’t just been a thorn in Barack Obama’s side,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal advocacy group Democracy for America. “He’s a thorn in the country’s side.”
The group gave $1,000 to Applegate last month, according to Federal Election Commission documents, after endorsing him in August. Sroka added that Applegate’s campaign has been using a tool called DFA dialer to make campaign calls.
Applegate has also been endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. He received $5,000 from both of the major teachers unions in the U.S., the National Education Association’s NEA Fund for Children and Public Education, and the American Federation of Teachers.
President Barack Obama has also joined in the effort, speaking at a fundraiser in California last Sunday where Applegate was present and calling out Issa for using the president’s image signing the Survivor’s Bill of Rights in a campaign mailer.
“That is is the definition of chutzpah,” Obama said.
In September, the DCCC made Applegate a late addition to its Red to Blue program, showing confidence in his chances of flipping the seat.
A Democratic campaign official said that while the DCCC has had its eye on the race, it would have been hard to believe it would be in play a year ago.
“You identify places that are tough but doable,” the official said.
But the official said that voter registration numbers, especially in the district, point to high enthusiasm among Democrats.
“I think there would be a lot of Democrats raising their glass if Darrell Issa loses on election day,” the official said.
Issa spokesman Jonathan Wilcox said Democrats have hard feelings because Issa served as a watchdog for the administration.
“They don’t like his accountability agenda,” Wilcox said. He pointed out that liberal groups are pouring outside money into the race when they often express concern about campaign finance — a “pretentious punchline writes itself,” he said.
Sroka said a number of factors have contributed to Issa’s vulnerability this year, including the changing nature of the district because of redistricting, as well as Issa’s embrace of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Fluke said that Trump’s derogatory comments about women reflect poorly on Issa’s own record.
“That just really sends a strong signal that he’d be willing to be linked to someone who is so disrespectful of women,” she said.
But Wilcox said the presidential race is having a minimal effect.
“I don’t think it’s in play here in the way the progressive left wants it to be,” he said.
Wilcox also added that Issa has consistently been in the district campaigning when he is not in Washington.
“We’re running a full campaign,” he said. “We don’t take anything for granted.”
If the race is as close as Democrats hope, they might not get to raise that glass right away — California voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to turn in their mail-in ballots.
“These tight districts may not be decided on Election Day,” the Democratic official said.