THOUSAND OAKS, Calif.—As a federal prosecutor in 2017, Matt Jacobs secured the conviction of Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun, a senior al Qaeda operative who killed U.S. service members in Afghanistan and conspired to bomb the U.S. embassy in Nigeria. A "rabid, unrepentant terrorist" to the end, Harun threatened throughout the trial to "continue his jihad" by killing Jacobs himself.
So when far-left Democrats equate the United States with Middle Eastern terrorists like Harun, Jacobs takes it personally.
"As someone who's prosecuted terrorists, that just makes my blood boil. It's absolutely absurd," Jacobs told the Washington Free Beacon at Finney's Crafthouse outside of Los Angeles. "When I hear these woke politicians ranting about how terrible this country is, how the American dream doesn't exist, it drives me crazy."
Jacobs spent more than six years as an assistant U.S. attorney, a job that saw him take down sex traffickers, fentanyl peddlers, and Russian mobsters—work he's quick to say he "absolutely loved." In that time, however, Jacobs also watched the Democratic Party undergo what he described as an extreme shift. As crime skyrocketed and riots gripped the nation, prominent Democrats fundraised for violent offenders and called for unrest in the streets. As schools shut down in Jacobs's native southern California, liberal teachers' unions demanded to defund police in order to reopen. For Jacobs, toiling over years-long cases focused on "one bad guy" began to feel inadequate. So he left the U.S. attorney's office to run for Congress as a Republican.
"I was spending these long days focusing on individual bad actors when it felt like Rome was burning all around, like the country was being pulled in a radical direction—defund the police, what's happening in our schools," Jacobs said. "And it was clear that the supposed ‘conventional, moderate' Democrats weren't able to stand up to these sources that now control their party. So I resigned from the U.S. attorney's office and launched the campaign."
To the casual observer, Jacobs's quest to flip California's 26th Congressional District red may seem far-fetched. The West Coast district includes portions of deep-blue Los Angeles County, and in 2020, Democratic incumbent Julia Brownley cruised to reelection, defeating her Republican challenger by 21 points.
But the state's recent redistricting process was kind to Jacobs. California's independent commission moved Simi Valley into his district, a conservative hub that helped Republican congressman Mike Garcia pull off not one but two upset victories in the neighboring 25th district in 2020. Simi Valley's addition, combined with the commission's removal of liberal areas from Jacobs's district, should net the Republican some 20,000 votes on paper alone.
That development, along with Jacobs's extensive prosecutorial background and President Joe Biden's declining popularity, has left California's top Republican officials excited about the prospect of ousting Brownley in November. On Thursday, Jacobs unveiled his first endorsement list, which House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) topped. Reps. Young Kim (R., Calif.), Michelle Steel (R., Calif.), and David Valadao (R., Calif.) also backed Jacobs—all three Republicans unseated Democratic incumbents in swing-district races of their own in 2020.
"As a federal prosecutor, Matt investigated and prosecuted America's enemies. He won high-profile cases against terrorists and opioid traffickers, upholding the rule of law and protecting our neighborhoods and communities," McCarthy said in a statement. "We need proven public servants in Congress, and that's why I'm proud to join many members of our congressional delegation and endorse Matt Jacobs for Congress."
The tough-on-crime rhetoric McCarthy attributes to Jacobs is no doubt at the center of the former prosecutor's campaign, and even in suburban Ventura County, the message resonates. As large-scale "smash-and-grab" robberies plagued neighboring Los Angeles last year, retail crime also spiked in Ventura, a development that Jacobs said has left many in the community "beside themselves."
"Criminals don't respect invisible county lines," said Jacobs, who is also endorsed by the Ventura County Deputy Sherrifs' Association. "When they're doing smash-and-grabs, they're not saying, ‘Oh, this is the county line, we don't cross it.' It's the general movement on the left to be soft on crime that's fueling it, and people in L.A. and Ventura County are receptive to that." He added that "people don't feel safe, and nothing is more important than public safety, because if your neighborhood isn't safe, business can't flourish, schools will fail—nothing else is possible."
While Jacobs's law enforcement bona fides are no doubt an asset in the race, it's his opponent's shortcomings on another top issue—education—that could give the Republican an opening.
After starting her political career as a public school board president in Santa Monica, Brownley spent six years in the California State Assembly. During her time as a state lawmaker, the Democrat emerged as a leading opponent of a bipartisan school choice bill, the Parent Empowerment Act. Much to the delight of the state's powerful teachers' unions, Brownley worked to water down provisions that allowed parents at chronically failing schools to secure internal reforms or move their kids to a more successful institution. The Democrat went on to run for Congress with support from the California Federation of Teachers and California Teachers Association, and she's since received $55,000 from the American Federation of Teachers as a federal lawmaker.
Nearly a decade after she left the state assembly, Brownley's close ties to both state and national teachers' unions could come back to bite her after the groups worked to keep California students at home throughout the pandemic. Jacobs accused the Democrat of doing "more than anything in the state to trap kids in failing schools," a position that he called "absolutely unconscionable."
"No one should ever sacrifice the well-being of children, frankly, for a donation from the teachers' unions. We need politicians who aren't in their pockets, who have the courage to say, ‘Hey, kids need to be in class to learn,'" Jacobs said. "For me, I take the side of parents. Parents should be in control of their kids' education, not bureaucrats, not politicians."
As Jacobs looks to ramp up what he calls his "common sense" campaign in 2022, political donors and national observers alike are beginning to take notice. Jacobs raised nearly $850,000 in 2021—well before he announced his high-profile endorsers—and election forecaster FiveThirtyEight later moved the race from "solid D" to "competitive D."
"We're looking at issues here—public safety and education—that are transcending party lines in a way that we haven't seen in prior years," Jacobs said. "We're bringing out people from all political stripes to our more common-sense positions."