By Ken Stone
On April 9, Matt Mendoza and Morgan Murtaugh sought the endorsement of the San Diego County Republican Party — the last hopefuls to be heard at the GOP’s bimonthly meeting.
“It didn’t look like they were too enthused,” Mendoza, a Lemon Grove city councilman, says with a laugh. “They were just sitting there. … I tried to make it brief.”
Murtaugh, a One America News Network anchor and producer at the time, recalls it being late at night at the Town & Country Hotel in Mission Valley.
“Everyone was so tired,” she said last week. “I just started cracking jokes and trying to wake them up.”The decision of the 200-plus party leaders opened eyes, for sure.
Thanks to winning local GOP backing, Murtaugh edged Mendoza by 1,117 votes in the June primary — qualifying for a November runoff and becoming possibly the youngest candidate for Congress this year.
She turns 26 next week.
Her November opponent: nine-term Democratic incumbent Susan Davis in the 53rd District, a 74-year-old San Diego institution who won the primary by nearly 50 percentage points.
Mendoza says he’s still “kind of shell-shocked” at not getting the GOP nod — and slate-mailer bump. He had planned to leverage his “pure Mexican” roots and labor-union experience to court Democratic votes in the left-leaning district.
“She’s going to lose by 25 percent,” Mendoza said of Murtaugh.
Given that Davis has won her past five elections by an average of 29 points — and a “Blue Wave” is being forecast — that might be considered generous.
So who is Murtaugh?
A 2015 political communications graduate of D.C.’s George Washington University (after three years at Grossmont College), Murtaugh is a conservative wunderkind who gained wide notice and thousands of followers via her @RepubGrlProbs Twitter feed and 2012-registered website, which grew out of a 2010 visit to Washington as a teen.
She attended a Tea Party rally (with her dad) and took offense at how it was depicted.
Her story of mainstream media disenchantment was included in Steve Belonger’s book “The Goliath Agenda: The Attack on Individual Effort.” She wrote for Red Alert Politics and launched a YouTube channel. (But she regrets not having access to her “Call Me Maybe” parody called “Call Me Lazy,” a reference to other young people.)
She moved back to San Diego in 2016.
Single, she lives near San Diego State University and still attends Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, where she went to school through eighth grade. (She’s a 2010 graduate of the all-girl Academy of Our Lady of Peace.)
She once wrote on her website (“Welcome to America, the land of free speech and the right to piss people off”) that Republicans “suck” at delivering their message.
“One thing [needed] is talking to people one-on-one,” Murtaugh says. “I think we’ve lost, on both sides honestly, the art of interpersonal communication. That’s why I’m talking to as many people as I can.”
She boasts of having attended the Pride parade and KSON Country Fest the same day — “two completely different audiences.”
“As Republicans,” she says, “we feel that we always have to be on the defense instead of just telling people what we think. I think that screwed up our messaging…. kind of turned people off.”
Morgan Murtaugh was born at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital in Kearny Mesa three months before Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992 (and nearly shares his Aug. 19 birthday).Her father, Daniel Murtaugh, recently retired as a sheriff’s homicide detective. She has two younger brothers — Merrick in Los Angeles and Connor, an SDSU senior.
Her mother, Antonina, is a contracting officer for the Navy who still “travels a lot,” auditing contracts.
“She goes to Navy bases around the world and makes sure that people are doing the job she used to do, correctly,” Murtaugh said in a recent interview at a La Mesa Starbucks.
Mom gets credit for a highlight of Murtaugh’s political resume — “assistant protocol officer to commander, Naval Air Forces.”
“She told me about usajobs.gov,” Murtaugh says.”[My] first job was where she works — Naval Facilities Engineering Command. I [was] a three-month summer hire there.”
Murtuagh applied for the assistant protocol job first, in fact, but was told she wasn’t qualified.
“I worked with the Navy at 17,” she said. “They kept telling me they liked me, but they didn’t want to give me the job because I was … too young.”
Undeterred, Murtaugh sent email every two weeks with her new navy.mil address.“Hey, how is the person you hired instead of me doing?” she wrote. “They ended up hiring me three months later because she didn’t work out. And I stayed there for three years.”
Now Murtaugh is looking for a two-year gig (or longer) in Washington, a step up from her current bills-paying job of delivering food for Postmates. (Last year she was a karaoke DJ in San Diego. Before that: an Uber driver in Washington.)
Her “fully millennial staff” includes Josh Wagoner and John Fritz of Oklahoma-based Tomahawk Strategies. (Elissa Roberson, a 26-year-old friend in Palm Desert, volunteered to be her campaign manager.)
“They came to us with a very good deal because they’re also millennials, and they understand,” said Murtaugh, who as of July had raised about a tenth of her rival’s warchest. (Davis $304,000, Murtaugh $33,000.)
So where does this young woman stand on the issues?
Her 11-minute “Morgan’s Mission” video reflects a Libertarian view — fiscally conservative, socially liberal. (She’d remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, for example, citing states’ rights.)
She breaks with President Trump on climate change, the border wall and the mainstream news media.
She’d vote to impeach the president if special counsel Robert Mueller documents high crimes or misdemeanors, saying: “If that was proven to be true, then yes. … yes, absolutely.”
But Murtaugh has a Trumpian bent as well, writing in The Daily Caller: “The majority of people crossing the border here in San Diego today are criminal illegal aliens (people in gangs like MS-13 who have nothing to lose), and cartel members. There’s no way around that, it’s a fact.”
She added in that April essay: “That doesn’t mean that there aren’t families who come seeking amnesty. It also doesn’t mean that everyone ‘seeking amnesty” is being truthful.”
Murtaugh, whose maternal grandmother is Mexican (and Jewish) and legally immigrated in 1968, defends writing for The Daily Caller, which has been criticized for hosting white-supremacist and anti-Semitic voices.
A friend at the time, who now works on Capitol Hill, was a Daily Caller contributor, “and she [asked] if I wanted to write an op-ed, and I said yes.”
Murtaugh stands by the essay’s sentiment, based on several walking tours with a Border Patrol official.
“I know it’s not a popular opinion,” she said, but “these are accounts Border Patrol agents are telling me. … I don’t know what’s going on down there. They know what’s going on down there. … I trust them.”
For similar reasons, she’s against an expensive border wall, calling it unneeded and “not financially sustainable.”
“What we need in San Diego isn’t the same thing we need in the middle of the desert,” she says. “We don’t need a massive border wall in the desert,” just fencing.
Murtaugh – who changed her verified (and popular) Twitter handle from @RepubGrlProbs to @MorganMurtaugh for the congressional race — has a problem with Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, however.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” she says. “Families should never be separated.”
But she says her father said families were being separated because of a law “on the books for a while” to keep children out of jails.
“My dad’s in law enforcement, and he said I’d never want my child in a jail with me,” she says. “That’s what people are missing.”
She says intake of refugees depends on federal money budgeted for that exercise, including “assimilation” costs like teaching immigrants English.
Murtaugh would like to allow private parties to sponsor refugees and lighten the taxpayers burden.
“If we open this up to sponsorship, and if people …. want to take on a family and pay for all this for them personally, and help assimilate them, that should be something we should be able to do,” she said. “But we aren’t able to do that right now.”
“I haven’t used that term in a very long time. I wouldn’t use it today,” she said, admitting that she didn’t know that Rush Limbaugh had popularized the term.
Another thing Murtaugh learned from Dad: How to use a gun.
“I have an AR-15,” she says. “I learned how to use a gun at the age of 9. I’m very responsible (around) firearms. And I think what we’re seeing is not enough people know how to responsibly use a firearm.”
That was the National Rifle Association’s original mission, she says. “They’re an educational entity — to teach people how to responsibly use firearms.”
Despite a societal stigma, and fear, of firearms, she worries any ban would “just widen that black market. The best and better option … is to educate. … how to use firearms safely. Especially these kids who are shooting up schools. I don’t think they necessarily know the impact of what they’re doing.”
She pushed back against the closing of the so-called Gun Show Loophole, calling it “nonexistent.”
It’s for sale of historic firearms, she says. “Like my dad has guns from World War II…. You wouldn’t rob a bank with a World War II rifle because it would take you forever to figure [it] out…. That [rule] is for collectors and for antiques.”
Murtaugh has been endorsed by former Mayor Art Madrid, a one-time La Mesa neighbor and mentor. She’s sympathetic to his liberal stances on manmade climate change. To a point.
She says: “I don’t think it’s something we can solve. But I think it’s something we can sort out. I don’t think we’ve completely caused it. I think that we are definitely contributing to it being worse, and getting worse fast.”
She splits with many GOP colleagues, and the president, on how to tackle energy issues.
“One thing we could do is provide incentives for businesses to use green energy,” she said. “Another thing … is making sure that kids learn this in schools. I learned about recycling in California middle schools.”
But what California teaches, she says, is not necessarily “what they’re learning in the Midwest or anywhere else. … How to be a good citizen of the earth.”
How does she get her news?
A lot comes from Twitter, she notes, which she says a lot of people in politics and media rely on for breaking news.
“I have a lot of push notifications — from people like The New York Times, The Washington Post,” she says. “I don’t really read hyperpartisan (sources) on either side. I’m not going to read Media Matters, and I’m not going to read Breitbart.”
Her steer-to-the-middle tone is a key to her political philosophy and campaign strategy.
“My goal is to bring people together,” she says when asked whether she’d like to follow in the footsteps of another young conservative firebrand (and ex-ONA host) Tomi Lahren.
“That (Lahren) trajectory kind of causes divisions,” she says. “People don’t want to listen to someone yelling at them and telling them that they’re stupid. And I don’t think that.”
Murtaugh even says “some of my best friends are liberals,” including a Bernie Sanders fan she recently wished happy birthday.
“She’s actually helping me on my campaign,” Murtaugh said of the friend. “She’s been making calls for me because she knows who I am as a person. … We do agree on a lot of things even though we disagree.”
Calling herself “very much in the middle,” she added: “We need more people to come to the middle and have conversations.”
She rejects Trump’s slam at the MSM as “enemy of the people.”
“No,” she says. “I just think that the mainstream news media has their own opinions, and we’ve kind of left traditional journalism for opinion-based journalism. And I think that the truth is in the middle.”
Murtaugh filed for Congress a day before the March 9 deadline.
“I was wondering [about] who’s running 10 days before, and I looked it up. I was shocked that the Republican Party couldn’t put forward someone who had a standing chance,” she said.
She accused the local party of running the “same kind of candidate every single cycle and losing abysmally.”
So at that late-Monday endorsement meeting in April, she said: “I think it’s time you shake it up. If I lose, we were already going to lose with the candidate we already knew we were going to lose with. At least we’re taking a chance on something different and trying it out.”
When a reporter shared that thought with her rival, Mendoza, he pushed back.
“She cannot relate to the working class people because — has she had a job before?” he asked in a phone interview. “I don’t know.”
(Her website adds that she paid her way through college by working in retail, and “In Washington, Morgan continued to build an impressive resume with jobs on Capitol Hill, as a fellow at the Young America’s Foundation National Journalism Program” — a 12-week program in 2013.)
“When I went door-to-door, people hadn’t heard of Morgan,” said the one-time Assembly candidate. “And at the time, I didn’t know either. I thought she was some kind of blogger. I don’t think she’s a conservative.”
Without using the name Carl DeMaio, Mendoza said he’d heard from some voting members at the GOP meeting that she was “pushed by a radio personality in the area. He was backing her, and of course he carries a lot of weight with a lot of the moderate Republicans.”
“That was part of the shock,” he said of what his young rival called “Manic Monday.”
DeMaio confirms that he endorsed Murtaugh before the vote “and she mentioned me as an endorser in her remarks before the committee.”
Via email, the former San Diego councilman said Morgan reached out to him.
“For me, an endorsement boils down to three things: a candidate’s ability to fight in a principled way for reform without being sucked into the trappings of political office, their stand on the issues, and their work ethic,” he said. “Morgan has all three of those things going for her.”
DeMaio also called her “an articulate, intelligent and principled leader who represents the future of our party,” especially millennials.
“In addition, I authorized several advertisements for her including robo-calls and social media ads,” says the 2014 Congress candidate. “I will likely do a few events for her as we get closer to the election.”
Art Madrid, the longtime former La Mesa mayor, recalls how she and her friends walked precincts for him while in high school. She served as one of his interns.
“I have endorsed her and given her a contribution because she is one of the future leaders of this country,” he said. “She is honest, ethical, hard-working and with good work ethic habits. She is also a quick study.”
Madrid says he’s talked with her about the challenge of opposing an entrenched congresswoman, “but I respect her confidence and grit.”
Mendoza, still pained, remains confident he’ll win another shot.
He notes he was endorsed by the American Independent Party and the California Republican Assembly.
“We had all the chips in line,” Mendoza says. “I’m the worst nightmare (for Democrats). I’m a conservative Mexican-American going after the 53rd District. There’s 34 percent Hispanics in the district.”
He insists the Central Committee “missed the boat,” saying he needed only 550 votes from Murtaugh’s side to make it a dead heat.
“Morgan will say anything to get the committee to vote for her and get the endorsement,” he said via email, “and along with her radio buddy backing her, it was easy on her part.”
He said such local GOP decision-making “might be reason why the Republican Party is third in San Diego behind the Dems and the Indys.”
Davis is still expected to win a 10th term in the House (at age 74).
So Murtaugh says she’ll bide her time — but not seek a local office such as school board.
“Yes, I would definitely run again in 2020,” she says. “I’m definitely positioning myself to stick in this district for a long time.”
She’s even talked to friends about starting a group that helps find and groom millennial candidates — a conservative Emily’s List.
“I think that a lot of millennials agree with me on most issues,” she says. “Most non-Republicans are more Libertarian, so I think that we can capitalize on the fact that we have a lot of really good young Republicans out there that are relatable to most people. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal.”
Saying she treasures having met “so many amazing people,” she offers that she can’t see herself going down another career path.
“Right now, I’m totally focused on this,” she said over a Wednesday morning coffee. “This is my Plan A, B, C. This is it for me right now. But I firmly believe that I think that God’s kind of forging my path for me. And I’m following what He tells me to do.
“And I know that after this, after all the people I’ve met doing this, that I will be OK if I don’t win.”
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