In a game of political chicken, rivals in the close 49th Congressional District race have sent each other tough letters threatening lawsuits.

Scene from Doug Applegate TV spot attacking Rep. Darrell Issa. Image via

At issue is a commercial by retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Rep. Darrell Issa.

The widely seen 30-second spot links Issa to Donald Trump, whom he has endorsed, and suggests the wealthy Republican congressman “gamed the system to line his own pockets,” and steered “millions in taxpayer money to help properties he owns.”

The ad references an August 2011 New York Times article titled “A Businessman in Congress Helps His District and Himself.”

Darrell Issa letter to Doug Applegate (PDF)

Issa at the time demanded a full-page retraction and said the article, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Lichtblau, had 13 errors. The Times eventually published four corrections.

Days after the Applegate ad began airing, a lawyer for Issa’s campaign sent a three-page letter to Applegate and his campaign manager, Robert Dempsey, in Solana Beach.

“The advertisement contains false information deliberately and knowingly intended to mislead California voters and defame Congressman Issa’s reputation,” said the lawyer, J. Randy Evans of Washington.

In his letter dated Sept. 29, Evans demanded the ads cease and Applegate issue a public apology.

“In the event that Colonel Applegate and the campaign refuse to do so, Congressman Issa intends to vigorously pursue all legal rights and remedies available to him,” Evans said, attaching a draft defamation complaint that he said would pass muster with libel law involving public figures.

On Monday, the Applegate camp responded with its own letter.

“A review of the advertisement and its supporting documentation shows that it is carefully documented and entirely accurate,” wrote Andrew Harris Werbrock for the Democratic challenger. “Thus your letter and draft complaint can only be seen as a misguided attempt by Mr. Issa to bully and intimidate my clients into silence, because Mr. Issa does not like the content of the advertisement.”

Doug Applegate response to Darrell Issa letter (PDF)

Werbrock, based in Oakland, said The New York Times corrections were on “three minor points” not material to the thrust of the ad.

The response letter concluded: “It is understandable why Mr. Issa, as a 16-year incumbent who is now in danger of losing his lucrative position, would prefer that the advertisement not air. But he has no right to censor its truthful claims, which are amply supported by the public record.”

If Issa decides to sue, the letter said, Applegate and Dempsey will “vigorously pursue all legal rights and remedies available to them.”

The liberal site Daily Kos made fun of the Issa threat, saying: “Issa’s squealing like a stuck pig because polling has shown this race exceptionally close and he doesn’t know how to deal with it.”

David Nir, political director of Daily Kos, also wrote: “Seriously, no one in politics ever does this. It’s insane. … The entire thing is nuts.”

Issa’s claim centers on a screenshot where the “gamed the system” quote is rendered in a newspaper-style headline, above a New York Times logo displayed on a slant, Nir noted.

“It’s the kind of visual technique used in a million campaign ads,” he said.

Before the first salvo of letters, The Orange County Register noted a website created by the Issa campaign calls Applegate “another left-wing extremist California just can’t afford.”

Jodi Balma, a political scientist at Fullerton College, was quoted as saying: “I think Issa is nervous.”

It’s rare for incumbents to spend money attacking challengers unless the race is close, she told the paper.

Issa won the June primary with 50.8 percent of the vote, 5.3 points ahead of Applegate in a district that includes south Orange County and north San Diego County.

According to voter registration figures released Monday, Republicans hold a slim 35.7 percent to 33.2 percent edge over Democrats in the 49th District, with 26.9 percent listed as independents. says Issa as of June 30 had raised $751,393 to Applegate’s $186,104. But Issa had $3.7 million cash on hand. Applegate had $50,541.

Meanwhile, Issa’s campaign responded to another Applegate ad, saying in a Wednesday news release that “Congressman Darrell Issa set the record straight on the false advertisement put out yesterday by his opponent’s failing and desperate campaign, which shamelessly politicized the worst terrorist attack on American soil for their own partisan gain.”

Applegate’s ad showed a 9/11 responder saying Issa and Tea Party Republicans “tried to play politics with our lives” when they voted against a bill providing health care to 9/11 first responders. On Dec. 18, 2015, Issa joined the “yes” majority in reauthorizing the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

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