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What does Darrell Issa want?

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, whose district straddles San Diego and Orange counties, has raised his national profile as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, whose district straddles San Diego and Orange counties, has raised his national profile as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
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A California Republican is in the spotlight on Capitol Hill, taking on the Justice Department, the IRS and the Obama administration. But what does Southern California Congressman Darrell Issa want? 

Issa seems to be everywhere these days – CNN, the Sunday talk shows, even "Saturday Night Live." But most especially while chairing the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Issa has led investigations into the ill-fated ATF gun running operation known as “Fast and Furious,” in which guns tracked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were found near where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was killed.  He's looked into lavish spending at IRS training conferences.

Since calling the President’s press secretary a “paid liar” earlier this month, Issa has avoided the media, including a request to be interviewed for this story. Still, University of California political science professor Marc Sandelow says Issa’s spotlight is growing brighter as he leads two investigations: the deaths of four Americans when the U.S. compound in Libya was overrun by Islamic extremists; and the extra scrutiny the Internal Revenue Service has given to conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

"During the summer in Washington, when a lot of legislation isn’t getting passed, it’s going to be Issa looking into the IRS, Issa on Benghazi," Sandelow says. "People are going to know this guy who might otherwise have never heard of him."

Most Californians first heard of Issa in 1998 when he sought the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. Issa lost the GOP primary to then-State Treasurer Matt Fong. Claremont College government professor Jack Pitney says it was an indication that Issa's statewide appeal was limited. 

Two years later, Issa won his House seat, which straddles San Diego and Orange counties. But he soon ventured into statewide politics again, bankrolling the 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis. Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Senior Fellow at USC’s Price School of Public Policy, says the assumption was that Issa would run for governor himself in the replacement election.

"Except that he forgot to tell Arnold [Schwarzenegger], or Arnold didn’t care," Jeffe says. Schwarzenegger jumped into the race and won. Issa focused on Capitol Hill, serving on half a dozen committees — Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Energy & Commerce, Small  Business, and finally, in 2010, becoming chairman of Oversight and Government Reform. Jeffe says Issa is "positioning himself as the anti-Obama."

But to what end?

Issa could make another run for U.S. Senate, particularly if Dianne Feinstein decides to retire in six years when she'll be 85-years-old. Or he could run for Governor.

GOP political consultant Alan Hoffenblum says Issa has two problems: the shrinking number of Republican voters in California and the fact that few people here pay much attention to Congress. And those who do would likely vote against him.

"He’s investigating a President that is widely popular in this state and carried it by a wide margin," Hoffenblum says. "So if you’re interested in a career in California politics, you don’t go down that road."

Issa represents a safe Republican district. He’s known locally for bringing home millions of dollars in road and public works improvements. So he could just climb the ladder of House leadership. Though, these days, the job isn't much fun. It can be like herding cats. Claremont professor Pitney says it’s sure not the House of Newt Gingrich: 

"What we’re seeing is that the Speaker really doesn’t really have the same kind of power to drive the agenda and move the House as predecessors did even a couple of decades ago."

Even if Issa did want the job, UC's Sandelow says there’s a roadblock: "Not only is he not really talked about in Washington that way, but he’s got another Californian, Kevin McCarthy, who’s ahead of him in leadership now." The Bakersfield Republican is the current House whip, number three in leadership.

But Sandelow says you don’t have to have a leadership job to be powerful on Capitol Hill. He says there's no better way than giving money to your colleagues’ re-election campaign.

"Darrell Issa gave contributions to almost a hundred of his fellow Republicans in the last election," Sandelow says. "That buys you friends."

Friends who could back you in a future leadership fight or vote on your bill. Sandelow says think of Kevin Spacey on "House of Cards," handing out campaign cash and  later calling in his chips. 

Issa’s leadership PAC raised and spent more than half a million dollars in the last election cycle. Sandelow says Issa’s higher profile will make the fundraising even easier.

Issa himself has been mum about his future. Which opens the door to speculation, like this from USC’s Jeffe: "I’ve been thinking about the possibility that he may be fairly well positioned for perhaps the Vice Presidential nomination." Issa has lots of fans among conservatives and could balance a GOP ticket.

Pitney warns that kind of national attention could open a can of worms Issa would rather stay shut. More than four decades ago, Issa pleaded guilty to carrying an unlicensed gun. He was also indicted on felony car theft charges, which were dropped because of a lack of evidence. Pitney says if Issa ran for higher office, opposition researchers would "have a lot to work with."

Issa doesn’t have to make any decisions right now. He’s only halfway through a six-year term as head of the oversight committee. He’s one of the richest members of Congress, thanks to his car alarm business. And he’s still under 60.

Sandelow says Issa has put himself in a position that, if the opportunity arises, he can exploit in ways that don’t seem at all possible at all right now.