Mike Levin volunteers Ellen Montenari and Misty O’Healy talk to Michael Elliott outside his Encinitas home. / Photo by Jesse Marx
Mike Levin volunteers Ellen Montenari and Misty O’Healy talk to Michael Elliott outside his Encinitas home. / Photo by Jesse Marx

Ella Chambers isn’t old enough to vote. But she spent Saturday trying to persuade those who are.

Chambers joined a dozen other volunteers to campaign on behalf of Sara Jacobs, a former nonprofit CEO who worked for the State Department, by going door to door in parts of the 49th Congressional District deemed high-priority.

A junior at Torrey Pines High School, where Jacobs graduated, Chambers said she identified with the candidate, agreed with her stance on gun control and other measures and felt that electing a young progressive woman to Congress could serve as a “domino effect” in other parts of the country.

I asked Chambers what happens if Jacobs — or any Democrat — doesn’t get though the primary on Tuesday, and she laughed nervously.

“We don’t like to think about that,” she said.

Jacobs is one of 16 candidates, including four Democrats, competing to succeed outgoing Republican Rep. Darrel Issa. The 49th is one of several districts in Southern California where Republicans outnumber Democrats — 36 to 31 percent — but where voters went for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Nearly 27 percent of voters are registered independents, and about a fourth of the residents identify as Latino.

Although the pressure is on Democrats to perform well, party activists couldn’t bring themselves to rally around a single candidate at the recent state convention.

In other states, that wouldn’t be a problem. In California, however, the top two vote-getters proceed to the general election regardless of party. Because Democrats are so deeply divided headed into the primary, there is a real fear that they’ll block themselves from the November ballot.

Anxieties going into the final weekend were high, as the campaigns and their most passionate advocates fanned out to talk to voters with their last-minute pitches.

“This election is going to come down to a few hundred votes, and the people you are talking to will make the difference,” Noelle Daniels, a field organizer, told the volunteers at a home in Solana Beach.

Daniels pressed the importance of developing an Election Day plan with prospective voters, confirming their polling location and how they intend to get there. She also provided a sheet with possible responses that the volunteers may receive while out in the field. If, for instance, someone is on the fence about Jacobs, volunteers were encouraged to say something like, “The stakes have never been higher – the world is watching what happens in California this year, and we need to be sure we turn out and vote for Sara to send a message to Donald Trump.”

Should anyone ask about the risk of splitting the vote and dooming the progressive cause, the Jacobs campaign pointed volunteers to a recent survey, commissioned by two local media outlets, putting Jacobs in a tie with another Democrat, attorney Doug Applegate, for second place.

Another survey released last week, conducted by Democratic operatives, put another Democrat, attorney Mike Levin, neck-and-neck with Republican Diane Harkey, who has Issa’s endorsement as well as the parties in Orange and San Diego counties. That poll, of course, is being touted by Levin volunteers in the field, but the comfort it provided was limited.

“I’m not sleeping well,” said Ellen Montenari, outside a café in Encinitas.

“I think we’re going to be a bundle of nerves,” said Misty O’Healy — to which Montenari added, “Beyond Tuesday.”

Both women played key roles in the weekly protests outside Issa’s Vista office and both are now volunteering for Levin outside their roles with two Democratic organizations, Flip the 49th PAC and Indivisible 49, which are officially neutral.

Levin has responded to Montenari’s and O’Healy’s support by putting their pictures on a new mailer.

When talking to voters, they highlight Levin’s other endorsements and argue he’s the only candidate that can beat a Republican in what remains a conservative district with a strong military presence in November. The fact that they’d organized a protest outside Issa’s office gives them a good amount of credibility when knocking on doors.

I joined Montenari and O’Healy for a quick canvas in Encinitas — they were following up with voters who’d previously expressed support for Levin — and the first house they visited was not happy to see them. Frowning as they approached his driveway, a man said he’d gotten hundreds of phone calls in recent days and he considered the ceaseless contact a form of harassment. He said he’d already voted but wouldn’t say for whom.

Please leave, he said.

The next two houses were more accommodating. One woman had hardly gotten the door open before she recognized the volunteers and said cheerfully, “We’re voting for him!” Down the street, Michael Elliott assured the volunteers they could count on his vote June 5.

They chit-chatted for a minute and Montenari mentioned that she and O’Healy had organized the rallies outside Issa’s office. Elliott nodded in agreement. He’d been to one of the rallies himself, he said.

Of all the candidates in the running, Republican Assemblyman Rocky Chavez, a Marine and former Oceanside City Council member, probably has the most name recognition. He’d been the early favorite but his position has slipped in the wake of attacks by both local Republicans and national Democratic operatives over Chavez’s willingness to break with his own party – as he did last year on a system of permits for the state’s major carbon polluters.

But that’s exactly what members of Chavez’s base say they appreciate about him.

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez and his campaign volunteers met in a Carlsbad park before knocking on doors the weekend before the primary election. / Photo by Jesse Marx

Issa emerged in the 2016 election as one of Trump’s most adamant supporters. Chavez, on the other hand, has made clear that sometimes he agrees with the president and sometimes he doesn’t, and that’s how the House of Representatives was designed — as a check on executive power.

“I think there’s a misconception that Republicans are all about Trump,” said Matt O’Donnell, an 18-year-old who went door to door on behalf of Chavez on Sunday.

O’Donnell and another volunteer, Brian Stowe, are members of the American Patriots student club at La Costa Canyon High School. Stowe said Chavez made an impression when he spoke to the club last year and then sought its advice about running for Congress. Chavez could have dismissed the thoughts of a bunch of high school kids, but he didn’t, Stowe said.

The Chavez campaign was using an app to store voter data gathered in the field. Beyond that, it had few of the assets I’d seen in other parts of the district, among the other campaigns. There were no scripts, no talking points, no strategy about how to get people to the polls.

Moments before they split up in their cars, one volunteer talked to Chavez about deer hunting.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Ella Chambers; she is a junior at Torrey Pines.

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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