SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Reuters) – When a Democrat with Palestinian-Mexican ancestry who had never before run for office was picked to challenge a Republican incumbent in a staunchly conservative southern California congressional district, few gave him much of a chance.
Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA), leaves federal court in San Diego, California, U.S. September 24, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake
But five-term U.S. Representative Duncan Hunter, who has been criminally charged with misusing campaign funds, is concerned enough about Ammar Campa-Najjar to issue a YouTube ad accusing his rival of trying “to hide his family’s ties to terrorism,” a reference to his Palestinian grandfather, who led a 1972 plot to kill Israeli athletes at the Olympics.
The ad, released on Wednesday, shows Hunter, a former U.S. Marine who followed his father into Congress, dressed in camouflage.
Campa-Najjar, who worked in President Barack Obama’s White House, said in a statement Friday that he was “sad to see Congressman Hunter lose his grip on reality.”
Hunter’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats need to pick up 23 House of Representatives seats in the Nov. 6 congressional elections if they wish to take a majority and serve as a more effective counter to U.S. President Donald Trump. Republicans can ill afford to lose normally safe seats like Hunter’s, in a district including San Diego, as they look to keep control of that chamber.
Polls show Hunter maintaining a comfortable lead over Campa-Najjar, though not as wide as his 27 percentage point margin of victory in 2016.
A Monmouth University Poll of 401 voters conducted between Sept. 22 and 26, found 53 percent of likely voters supported Hunter versus 38 percent for Campa-Najjar. The poll had a 5.3 percentage point margin of error.
Campa-Najjar’s campaign says its polling shows a closer race.
FAMILY BLAME GAME
The 29-year-old Democratic challenger is the son of a Mexican-American mother and a Palestinian father who immigrated from the Middle East. He stresses his Christian faith on the campaign trail and has tried repeatedly to distance himself from his Palestinian grandfather, who led the plot at the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and was assassinated by Israeli commandos the following year.
He responded to Hunter’s ad by pointing to the Republican’s own family troubles: “He knows I’m not responsible for my family’s actions, just like his wife isn’t responsible for his.”
Hunter, 41, and his wife pleaded not guilty on Aug. 23 to charges of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds to pay for their children’s private school tuition, lavish travel including a trip to Italy and restaurant meals that cost hundreds of dollars. He has said the charges were politically motivated.
Hunter is not the only Republican congressman running for reelection while fighting criminal charges. U.S. Representative Chris Collins is also campaigning in a normally solidly Republican western New York state district while awaiting trial on insider trading charges that he has denied.
Both Hunter and Collins were early supporters of Trump, who early this month criticized Attorney General Jeff Sessions for allowing federal prosecutors to charge Republican candidates in an election year.
Campa-Najjar’s fundraising has outpaced Hunter’s, according to Federal Election Commission data through June 2018. Hunter’s campaign had reported contributions of $854,787, while Campa-Najjar had reported nearly $1.1 million
In an interview with Reuters before the ad’s release, Campa-Najjar said he expects to win over Trump voters that “can’t support somebody who embodies the swamp in Washington.”
(The story corrects paragraph three to show ad first issued on Wednesday.)
Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown