Darrell Issa holds a town hall at San Juan Hills High School, San Juan Capistrano, California on June 3, 2017.
CNN
Darrell Issa holds a town hall at San Juan Hills High School, San Juan Capistrano, California on June 3, 2017.
El Cajon, California CNN —  

Former Republican Rep. Darrell Issa on Thursday announced his bid to challenge GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is facing federal corruption charges, stating that he was a proven conservative who could win the district.

During a rainy press conference here in this conservative district covering much of eastern San Diego County, Issa did not mention Hunter or Hunter’s legal entanglements during his opening statement. But when asked about Hunter’s legal troubles over the improper use of campaign funds, Issa said, “His current situation is regrettable.”

“He deserves his day in court, but the 50th district does deserve to have the ability to retain this as a conservative district, and, quite frankly, to have a member who can show up and take all of his committee assignments,” Issa said, a reference to the fact that Hunter stepped down from those posts after House leaders made it clear they were stripping him of his committee assignments.

He also insisted that his campaign “will not be about the other guy,” referencing Hunter.

“This will be a referendum on – am I the right person to come back and serve for a number of terms again in Congress.”

Issa also noted that Hunter should be assumed innocent until proven guilty.

Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were indicted in 2018 for routinely using campaign funds for personal expenses and luxury family vacations. Hunter agreed to step down from his congressional committee assignments after the indictment, which came months ahead of the 2018 election. Hunter has denied any wrongdoing.

Margaret Hunter pleaded guilty in June to conspiring with her husband to “knowingly and willingly” use more than $200,000 in campaign funds for personal use.

On Thursday, Issa praised the work done by both Hunter and his father, former congressman Duncan Lee Hunter, on behalf of veterans and on the House Armed Services Committee.

Issa said he spoke with both Hunters on Wednesday to inform them of his decision. He did not share the content of those conversations.

He said he had not asked the younger Hunter to drop out of the 2020 race, stating that telling someone to “drop out rather than letting them decide what’s best for themselves and their family” was unwise.

Issa was joined by several other Republicans who had planned to run for Hunter’s seat. El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, former Escondido Mayor Sam Abed and retired Navy Seal Larry Wilske all announced they were bowing out of the race to support Issa.

One of Issa’s Republican rivals, Carl DeMaio, held a press conference on the same plaza moments after Issa concluded his event. DeMaio called Issa a quitter who abandoned his party and his president, and said he was someone who would rely on his personal fortune to fund his bid.

“San Diegans know that I’m a fighter. They know I will fight the hard fights,” DeMaio said. “I pledge this. I will never quit on you. I will never abandon you. I will never neglect you. I will never take the easy road. I will earn your support. I won’t try to buy it.”

DeMaio added that Issa “quit his congressional seat at a time when the party needed him to fight. His decision to quit; pull the plug; to not put up a fight cost us not only his seat, but more seats throughout the state. He undercut the Republican nominee in his district by declaring her dead on arrival on Election Day before people even went to the polls.”

Issa launched an exploratory committee in August to run for California’s 50th Congressional District. In 2018, Issa said he would not seek reelection for his Southern California seat, after serving in Congress since 2000. He represented a district that flipped to the Democrats along with a handful of others in 2018.

When asked why he wasn’t running again for his own district, Issa said he had determined he was no longer a good fit for that district because of the influx of Democratic voters and the number of voters who voted for Hillary Clinton.

“I’ll be candid: when the district changed, I didn’t fit the district,” Issa said. “It became a very, very—if you will—moderate district, and although I was able to hold it… I really wasn’t the person that fits it.”

“I’ve been somebody who has worked with the Freedom Caucus, Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows… and my politics are conservative politics,” he said. “So sometimes you have to ask – ‘Do you fit the district’ and the new 49th District with Solano Beach and the University of California San Diego really didn’t fit my politics.”

He said he has owned a house in the 50th District for more than a decade.

President Donald Trump last year nominated Issa to run the US Trade and Development Agency. Last week, a Senate hearing to consider Issa’s nomination was postponed over how to handle questions raised in his FBI file.

Issa said he was honored to be nominated by the President, but that once Democrats delayed his nomination, he felt he could do more for his country running for the 50th District. He discussed the decision with Trump last week, he said.

During his time in Congress, Issa was chairman of the House Oversight Committee and had a reputation for being a fierce opponent of Hillary Clinton. He presided over contentious hearings into the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, and on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups.