(AP) — Darrell Issa, a deep-pocketed businessman who garnered widespread admiration and scorn as a chief antagonist of former President Barack Obama, announced Thursday he will attempt a return to Congress to replace a longtime Republican incumbent.
Issa told a news conference that he decided to run against U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter to ensure the 50th District — one of Southern California’s last staunchly Republican districts — does not flip.
Hunter is seeking a seventh term while facing charges of siphoning more than $250,000 in campaign funds that prosecutors say went toward family vacations, shopping sprees, bar tabs and extramarital affairs, among other items.
Issa represented a neighboring San Diego-area congressional district for 18 years before retiring in January.
“I believe that I have the history, the skills, the seniority and the capability to hit the ground running,” Issa said in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon. “Not just for this district but for California — to help Republicans compete in what has become a very treacherous and difficult Congress, and to retake the majority.”
Issa did not attack Hunter or call for him to step down. Instead he said Hunter has been a friend and colleague who worked hard for his district.
“His current situation is regrettable,” Issa said. “He deserves his day in court.”
Issa, a former nine-term congressman who made his fortune through a car-alarm company, saw the 49th District flip after he retired. Democrat Mike Levin won the seat last November in the district that straddles San Diego and Orange counties. Issa narrowly won the district in 2016.
Republicans have a big advantage in voter registration in California’s neighboring 50th District, which covers east San Diego County and a small part of southern Riverside County.
Hunter and Issa could wind up going head-to-head for the seat under California’s primary system, which allows the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, to compete in the general election.
Issa endeared himself to many conservatives as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2011 to 2015, where he was a vocal advocate for investigations into the Obama administration.
The San Diego County Republican Party is scheduled to consider an endorsement Oct. 14, three months before Hunter is scheduled to go to trial.
Last year, Hunter narrowly defeated Ammar Campa-Najjar, a young Democrat who came within 3.4 percentage points of winning the seat in his first run for Congress. He is running again in the March primary.
Campa-Najjar said Issa joining the field of candidates “just highlights the fact that Hunter is vulnerable and we’re viable, and that Washington insiders are scrambling to find somebody who could effectively challenge our campaign.”
Issa said Thursday that he decided to make a run because the Senate delayed his confirmation hearing to be director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. Issa said he told President Donald Trump, nominated him for the position, about his plans to run and that it would make better use of him.
Three other Republican candidates announced Thursday that they were dropping out and supporting Issa.
El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and retired Navy SEAL Larry Wilske said they believe Issa has the best chance of winning.
Another challenger, Republican Carl DeMaio, a radio host and former San Diego city councilman with broad name recognition, vowed to keep running.
DeMaio held a news conference next to Issa’s. His supporters chanted “Issa quit! Issa quit!” referring to Issa’s retirement from Congress.
DeMaio brushed off concerns about the Republican vote being divided.
“No $400 million career network politician is going to muscle this grassroots campaign to the sidelines,” DeMaio said.
Hunter won a sixth term last year, barely two months after he and his wife were charged with using campaign funds for personal expenses ranging from groceries to golf trips. Margaret Hunter has pleaded guilty to one corruption count and agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Hunter, whose father represented the district in Congress for 28 years, has pleaded not guilty and framed the charges as a political attack by prosecutors sympathetic to Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid.