Republican Duncan Hunter’s legal troubles didn’t stop him; the federally indicted Congress member from San Diego beat Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a former Obama White House aide and Labor Department employee, in one of California’s most solidly conservative districts.
He deployed a fiercely Islamophobic campaign — and it worked, for now.
Hunter, a Marine veteran who is a big supporter of President Donald Trump, was charged with massive campaign finance violations in August, too late for him to drop out of the race in the 50th District. The 47-page indictment alleges he used $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, including a vacation to Italy, private school tuition, and flying his family’s pet rabbit cross-country in the passenger cabin. Hunter pleaded not guilty, but there’s a good chance there will be a special election for this seat if things don’t go well for the Republican in court.
Hunter’s Democratic opponent, Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old Mexican-Palestinian-American first-time candidate, has been using Hunter’s scandal as a slogan: No one wants a “lawbreaker for a lawmaker,” the Democrat said on the campaign trail.
But in a district where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly two to one, Hunter, who had been in Congress since 2009, won anyway. He sailed to victory by 27 points in 2016, so it just goes to show how much a corruption message can impact politics. His margin this year was narrower, but not enough to do him in.
Hunter was clearly nervous; he was recorded strongly implying that Campa-Najjar was an “Islamist” who changed his name to “infiltrate” Congress — a message his campaign then pushed in ads. (Campa-Najjar is Christian.) Hunter’s campaign doubled down on the message, connecting Campa-Najjar to his grandfather’s ties to a terrorist plot in the 1970s. Campa-Najjar never met his grandfather, who died 16 years before he was born. His campaign also put out a letter signed by three retired Marines baselessly claiming that Campa-Najjar would give secret information on US military operations in the Middle East to foreign adversaries.
Campa-Najjar tightened the race by running a “country over party” message. His main policy emphasis to voters was fiscal responsibility, but he did have some progressive proclivities; he supported Medicare-for-all, said he would vote to bring the corporate tax rate back to 35 percent, and said he would never vote to defund Planned Parenthood.
But Republican voters in the district stuck with their candidate.
Hunter follows in the footsteps of other San Diego-area lawmakers who have survived all manner of scandal. His father represented this area from 1981 to 2009, during which time the good-government group CREW called him one of the most corrupt members of Congress. And the 50th District was where onetime Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham survived corruption scandals before finally going to jail for receiving $2.3 million in bribes.
Hunter, too, is apparently not too corrupt to be in Congress.