For years, unthinkable. Now, it’s possible the long reliably red 49th District might flip.
By 5 a.m today, results show Democrat Mike Levin leading in his bid to take the 49th Congressional District, ahead of Republican Diane Harkey by roughly 5 points — 52.4 percent to her 47.6 percent — according to totals posted by both Orange and San Diego counties. About two-thirds of the precincts had been reported.
Levin, who was watching the returns at the Del Mar Hilton, told supporters about 11 p.m. that while ballots remained to be tallied, “I am confident that when all the votes are counted, we will finally flip” the district.
San Diego County voters put Levin ahead, 56 percent to Harkey’s 44 percent. About three-quarters of the district voters are in San Diego County.
Early election results put Mike Levin ahead of Diane Harkey in the bid to replace retiring U.S. Rep Darrell Issa, who is leaving after nine terms as the congressman for California's 49th District.
The story was different in Orange County, which counts for about a quarter of the district. Voters there gave Harkey the edge, 56 percent to Levin’s 44 percent, based on results Orange County Registrar of Voters as of about 1:50 a.m.
For years reliably red, the district — from La Jolla through coastal North County up to Dana Point in southern Orange County — was one Democrats targeted as a potential win in their bid to take the House of Representatives.
They had viable shot: a near upset in 2016 ended with Issa, the Republican incumbent, barely keeping the seat.
Plus, the district had gone for Hillary Clinton — one of 23 such districts that voted Democratic for president but put a Republican in its House seat.
There were also changing party loyalties. This year, for the first time in several years, Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the San Diego County portion of the district. Republicans still rule the Orange County portion of the 49th.
Money poured into Democrat Levin’s campaign, which had raised nearly $5.6 million by the middle of last month to GOP Harkey’s nearly $1.5 million.
On Fox on Tuesday morning, Issa — who backed Harkey as his replacement about two weeks after he announced his retirement — pointed to lack of funding for her campaign, saying the district “was never in play this cycle.”
Early Tuesday, Levin spoke to supporters — including actress Alyssa Milano — who were gathered outside Issa’s Vista field office.
For more than a year after the election of Donald Trump, that sidewalk spot became ground zero in the bid to oust Issa in favor of a Democrat. Hundreds routinely showed up for weekly protests targeting Trump and his policies, as well as Issa, who had endorsed him.
“Flip the 49th” became a standard rally cry.
That’s because for 18 years, the 49th had been represented by Issa, a stalwart Republican.
In most elections, the onetime chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee trounced his Democratic opponents, often winning by more than 20 points.
Jaws dropped in 2016, when Issa eked out a win by just .6 percent — coming in 1,621 votes ahead of his Democratic challenger in a district where more than 300,000 people voted.
Another shock came in January when Issa announced he would not run for re-election — part of what would become an exodus of congressional Republicans bowing out, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
With Issa not on the ticket, the June primary saw 16 candidates elbowing for a spot in the general election, including state Assemblyman Rocky Chavez.
And the Los Angeles Times reported that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee “funded an attack campaign” against Chavez, fearing the Oceanside man and retired Marine Corps colonel “would be the most likely person to stop a Democratic challenge, according to committee sources.”
Harkey came out on top in the primary race, Levin landed in second place. But Democratic candidates also landed in the third and fourth spots. Conventional wisdom held that those voters would also go blue in November.
The 49th District has continued a shift away from red. In 2002, the San Diego County portion of the district skewed GOP, with nearly half its voters declaring themselves Republican. Only 29 percent registered as Democrats.
In the 2016 presidential election, the 49th District went for Hillary Clinton. Issa had backed then-presidential candidate Donald Trump.
No matter who wins, the election will bring another notable change. Issa was a resident of North County, which makes up about three-quarters of the 49th District. Levin and Harkey live in south Orange County.
Levin, a graduate of Stanford University and Duke University School of Law, is an attorney who has worked with organizations focused on the environment.
Harkey, who has an economics degree from UC Irvine, is a member of the state’s tax board. She also served three terms as a state assemblywoman.