What Does Hunter's Narrow Victory Mean For Future Politics In CA-50?
Republican congressman Duncan Hunter held on to his 50th district seat by just four percentage points in November. His victory over Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar was the closest finish he's ever had. Previously, Hunter had won his elections with double-digit margins. But during this campaign, he was fighting a federal indictment accusing him and his wife of misusing approximately $250,000 of campaign money on lavish dinners, trips and gifts.
Much of the 50th district has been "Duncan Hunter country" for almost four decades, through multiple rounds of census-driven redistricting. The current congressman's father, Duncan L. Hunter, served as the region's representative for almost three decades and was succeeded by Duncan D. Hunter almost ten years ago.
Many voters in the 50th say his father's legacy got the younger Hunter re-elected.
"I feel like people just remember his father and what a positive force that he was and Duncan Hunter is now riding on the legacy of his father," said Savannah Ledbetter, a Lakeside resident.
"He won because tribal politics is more important than anything else in modern America. You vote for your party based on the 'R' or the 'D,'"said Carl Luna, professor of political science at Mesa College. "It doesn't matter about anything else because your crook is better than their evil person."
Hunter's opponent, Campa-Najjar, was a 29-year-old former Obama staffer and east county native, who campaigned on the promise to work with politicians on both sides of the aisle.
"(I'm) relieved that the campaign is over and just really proud of what we achieved together, about 130,000 people voted for me this election, that's three times as many as the last challenger to Duncan Hunter," Campa-Najjar said.
The campaign was a fierce one, with attack ads from both sides. Campa-Najjar ads pointed out the Hunter indictment, while Hunter's ads raised questions about Campa-Najjar's grandfather, who was involved in the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics — but died before Campa-Najjar was born.
The Hunter ad was given four Pinnocchios — the worst possible rating — by the Washington Post's fact-checker.
Hunter's district chief of staff, Michael Harrison, said the indictment was a major factor in the narrow finish.
"You have some overlying issues in terms of the Department of Justice investigation into his campaign issues. He's addressed those, he's cooperated, it's working its way through the legal process and that obviously had an adverse effect," Harrison said.
Campa-Najjar believes his message resonated with voters but acknowledges the indictment wasn't a factor for many of Hunter's supporters.
"I’ve talked to a lot of Republicans, they have a lot of doubt and distrust about our governing institutions today including the Department of Justice and I think whether they had those feelings about when Trump was on the chopping block or Hunter they believed that Hunter was innocent until proven guilty," he said.
Hunter supporters in Lakeside said they felt loyalty toward Hunter despite the indictment.
"He might have gotten caught in borrowing some money. It's money he's supposed to spend on his campaign, but there's a lot of other congressmen doing the same thing, but somebody got mad at him and...he got turned in," said Glen Klein, a Hunter supporter.
"I liked what he stood on. I know that there are some problems there or alleged problems, but we're still in this country innocent until proven guilty, so until they prove that he's guilty — and I know it doesn't look good — but he's still innocent, that's why I went with him," said Mary Jo Johnson, who voted for Hunter in the last election.
Carl Luna said that ultimately, the 50th congressional district is still one of the reddest in the state.
"If you look at San Diego, there has been a general purpling from the coast to the mountains. Now the city is more Democratic, the county is becoming more Democratic, east county will probably make that turn, but it'll probably take another ten years," Luna said.
In the 2018 election, voter registration for the 50th district was 40 percent Republican, 27 percent Democrat and 27 percent undeclared. In 2012, 46 percent of the district's voters were registered Republican, 26 percent Democrat and 22 percent independent.
Since the indictment, Hunter has had to step down from the House committees he served on, but his chief of staff says his legal issues won't distract him from fulfilling his duties.
"There's still a number of things that he'll be able to do as a sitting member of Congress. He can introduce legislation, he can sign on to letters, we can bring attention to the issues that we think deserve that attention," Harrison said.
He said Hunter has no plans of stepping down. They expect he will be acquitted on the charges and re-elected to another term in 2020. A trial date for the Hunters has been set for September 10, 2019.