Four Candidates Vying For Duncan Hunter's Vacated 50th District Seat
This year, for the first time in four decades, someone who isn't named Duncan Hunter will be elected to serve San Diego County's 50th Congressional District.
Duncan D. Hunter resignation in early January — which followed his December guilty plea to a campaign finance crime — has left the race wide open, with three Republicans and a Democrat among the top contenders.
The Democrat is former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar. Campa-Najjar ran against Hunter in 2018, losing by fewer than 9,000 votes.
The 50th District, which has a population of 750,000 and covers much of north and east San Diego County, has for decades been one of California's most reliably red congressional districts. The Hunter dynasty held the seat dating back to the early 1980s. Duncan L. Hunter, Duncan D. Hunter's father, was first elected in 1981 and kept the seat until 2009 when the junior Hunter was elected.
In 2018, Duncan D. Hunter was charged with 60 federal criminal counts for using $250,000 of campaign money on personal expenses. He denied any wrongdoing for more than a year. Then, in December, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds.
Hunter told local news station KUSI that he wanted to spare his family a trial.
"I did make mistakes. I did not properly monitor or account for my campaign money," he said. "I justify that plea with the understanding that I am responsible for my campaign and what happens to my campaign money."
Hunter now faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He's scheduled to be sentenced on March 17. Because of the timing of Hunter's resignation, California Governor Gavin Newsom decided not to call a special election.
That means voters like Joseph Knob will have no representation in Congress until January 2021, when the winner of this year's November election takes office.
"Well, I think our community should be represented at all times by a congressman, so if we don't have a congressman for a year, that's not really fair for the people around here who vote," he said.
Campa-Najjar said he's building on the foundation he established in 2018.
"Nearly half the district voted for me to be a congressman," he said. "We've been running for three years and we've been talking to everybody: Republicans, Democrats, independents, people who aren't ignorant, but who are ignored by the Republican and Democratic party and I think that's going to give us an edge."
Of the candidates, only Brian Jones and Campa-Najjar live in the 50th District. Jones said the voters there should be familiar with his record.
"My family and my supporters felt like if there's going to be a change, then we really want someone from the district to be that representative and I think I've built a pretty good reputation in Sacramento working with my Democratic colleagues to get stuff done," Jones said.
Of the three Republican candidates running, DeMaio has been the most vocal opponent of Hunter.
"We have career politicians who say they're going to do something and then go back to Washington and become part of the swamp," DeMaio said. "I've shown time and time again whether it's taking on the politicians with the pension reform initiative or fighting them on the gas tax, I'm willing to step forward and fight for the people when career politicians sit on the sidelines."
DeMaio and about a dozen of his supporters showed up to protest Darrell Issa when he announced his candidacy in late September. Issa was the only candidate who turned down KPBS' repeated requests for an on-camera interview, but he did speak to the press when he threw his hat in the ring.
"I believe that I have the history, the skills, the seniority and the capability to hit the ground running not just for this district, but for California," Issa said in September.
Both Issa and DeMaio bring baggage to the race that could potentially harm their candidacies.
DeMaio has lost multiple races in the past, including an effort to repeal the gas tax, the San Diego Mayor's Race in 2012 and a race for the 52nd Congressional District in 2014.
In that congressional race, DeMaio also faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment from campaign staffers. One set of allegations, from staffer Todd Bosnich, was later largely discredited after Bosnich admitted he faked emails making it appear DeMaio threatened him. In 2015, Bosnich pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice was sentenced to five years of probation.
But allegations from another staffer, Navy veteran Justin Harper, have stuck. Harper said DeMaio exposed himself to him in a bathroom at the campaign headquarters and that Harper quit two days later because he was so upset.
Issa, meanwhile, has long been dogged by accusations of unethical, and even illegal, conduct during his life before he entered politics. In the late 1970s, Issa was charged in San Jose with grand theft after police alleged that he and his brother schemed to steal his own car and collect the insurance money. Police eventually dropped the charges.
Then, in the early 1980s, he was suspected of burning down his fledgling car alarm company's factory in Ohio in order to collect a large insurance payout. He denied the accusations and was never charged with a crime. His company went on to become the largest after-market car alarm manufacturer in the nation.
University of San Diego Political Science Professor Carl Luna said even with Hunter Jr's guilty plea and the past issues of DeMaio and Issa, it's hard to imagine the 50th going blue anytime soon. But turnout will matter, he said.
"It depends which side is going to be the most motivated in 2020 ... who's going to be able to get the most people out," Luna said. But he added, "Republicans usually win in that district."
The primary is March 3, 2020. The top two candidates will go on to the general election in November.