ESCONDIDO, California — When voters in the suburban and rural district just east of San Diego talk about their representative, Republican Duncan Hunter, they don’t wonder if he will go to jail — they talk about when.
“I don’t meet much of anyone who thinks Duncan Hunter has much of a political career left,” said Bill Wells, the conservative mayor of El Cajon, California, located in Hunter’s district.
As Democrats run on an anti-corruption message, Hunter, a Donald Trump-loving Marine veteran, seems like the perfect test case. He was charged with massive campaign finance violations in August, too late for him to drop out of the race. 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.
This should be Hunter’s race to lose. Registered Republicans here outnumber Democrats nearly two to one. Hunter, who has been in Congress since 2009, won this Trump-friendly district by 27 points in 2016. But less than a month from Election Day, the polls show the Democrat in the race within single digits.
Hunter’s Democratic opponent is a first-time candidate: Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old Mexican-Palestinian-American progressive who is a former Obama White House aide and Labor Department employee. His slogan: No one wants a “lawbreaker for a lawmaker.”
“Ammar is doing well because people are sick of corrupt liars,” said Kristine Alessio, an ex-Republican City Council member in La Mesa, California, a city in the congressional district.
But whether the public is truly fatigued enough to oust a Republican from a seat that’s been held by one for nearly a decade is an open question here — and one that will play out in districts across the country as Democrats attempt to flip longtime red seats to blue.
Hunter is following in the footsteps of the other San Diego-area lawmakers who’ve 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. An it was in the 50th Congressional District where former Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham survived corruption scandals before finally going to jail for receiving $2.3 million in bribes.
This will be a true test of the anti-corruption message
The $600 plane ticket for Hunter’s pet rabbit was only a small piece of a much larger scandal. But the rabbit has become something of a mascot in Hunter’s race. Last year, Shawn VanDiver, a prominent San Diego political activist and adjunct professor at San Diego State University, hired a couple of friends to put on a bunny suit — naming it Duncan Thumper — and sit next to Hunter at his favorite San Diego bars. When Hunter and his wife pleaded not guilty, a sea of bunny ear- and pussy hat-wearing activists were waiting outside the courthouse.
“I’m not like Hunter; I’m not flying pet rabbits around,” Campa-Najjar tells voters at every campaign stop. “People are telling me — Republican, Democrat, independent — they’re fed up. They’re done.”
Scandals like Hunter’s weigh heavily on elections. They can have a net effect of 9 percentage points in an election, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver found in an analysis of past scandal-ridden incumbent candidates’ races. Hunter’s scandal alone prompted the nonpartisan Cook Political Report to move the midterm rating for California’s 50th District from Solid Republican to Leans Republican.
That’s why Democrats rolled out a national campaign earlier this year taking aim at corruption and pay-to-play politics in Washington under the Trump administration — a platform reminiscent of a message Democrats successfully campaigned on in 2006. (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the official campaign arm for House Democrats, still hasn’t gotten involved in Campa-Najjar’s campaign, though a DCCC aide said the organization is monitoring the race.)
Still, this race continues to “lean Republican” in a district where voters have turned a blind eye to corruption scandals many times before.
“The problem with the culture of corruption message is that Democrats have tried many times to use that message and it’s never really worked [in San Diego],” said Kurt Bardella, a former media consultant for Breitbart News and former spokesperson for ex-San Diego County Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray. In 2006, Bilbray, a lobbyist, won a special election for Cunningham’s seat after Cunningham went to prison for taking bribes from lobbyists.
“This is a party that is conditioned now to look the other way and doubt fundamental facts and truth. They are told every day that the news reports are fake news, that it’s a conspiracy — so it’s not that much of a stretch to extend that to Duncan Hunter’s situation,” Bardella said.
Hunter’s campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the San Diego County Republican Party all did not respond to interview requests. The Republican Party is standing with Hunter through all this.
“We have a conservative district that we are about to lose to a pretty radical leftist,” Wells said of the party’s calculus. “Let’s just vote [Hunter] in and then maybe he’ll make a deal with the DOJ and we will have a special election and move on.”
Hunter’s lowball retreat
Hunter has been lying low. But the last time he made a campaign appearance, in late September, he was recorded strongly implying that Campa-Najjar was an “Islamist” who changed his name to “infiltrate” Congress.
Later that week, Hunter’s campaign played up the attack in an ad calling Campa-Najjar a “security risk,” tying him to his grandfather, who was part of the Munich massacre terrorist attack and who died 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born.
Hunter, who appears at the end of the ad in full Marine combat gear, also claims Campa-Najjar has been endorsed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR does not endorse candidates, though an independent CAIR PAC has supported his nomination), and the Muslim Brotherhood (there is no evidence of that). Hunter has been fundraising on this message since.
It’s the same kind of race-baiting Republicans have retreated to over and over again when they feel under siege. After all, conventional wisdom says there are wide swaths of this district that could never imagine voting for a Democrat — let alone a Palestinian Mexican American.
This is the part of California where you see Confederate flags, and where many people only socialize with people who look like them. Volunteers for Campa-Najjar’s campaign will tell you they find themselves explaining that their candidate disavows terrorism.
It makes people uncomfortable, Wells said. To “look nice” and be kind isn’t enough to gain people’s trust, he says. Still, Campa-Najjar thinks he has a shot.
“There are two candidates in this race: One of us was indicted by the FBI, the other one was cleared by the FBI to work at the White House,” Campa-Najjar recently told a group of voters. And if that doesn’t work, Campa-Najjar is quick to assure them he’s a Christian.
Democrats are energized — and a scandal like Hunter’s has sparked something in an already big year
Campa-Najjar’s path to victory is winning the vote of every single registered Democrat, almost all independent voters, and some Republicans. He needs to execute a mammoth voter turnout operation, and he has to persuade independents and Republicans to vote for him.
Hunter’s corruption scandal has people paying attention. But it’s his job to quell Republicans’ biggest fears about the Democratic worldview.
He does it by walking an impossible tightrope: He’s a progressive whose main message to voters is fiscal responsibility. He supports Medicare-for-all, says he would vote to bring the corporate tax rate back to 35 percent, and talks about the “forgotten men and women” — a campaign line coined by Trump. He tells voter he’d never vote to defund Planned Parenthood — the most popular health care organization in the district — the same way he would never ban guns.
And just miles from the southern border, Campa-Najjar will first concede that some undocumented immigrants are criminals, drug dealers, and killers — another Trumpism — to then say their most likely victims are other undocumented immigrants. He says he will fight for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as part of his national security platform. His campaign manager is a DREAMer.
“The truth doesn’t matter as much as trust,” Campa-Najjar tells me. He needs people to tell him that they’ll “trust he will make the right choices,” more than Hunter would.
People like Tom Theriault, a 61-year-old Republican resident of San Marcos, California, who is staunchly anti-abortion, thinks homosexuality is unhealthy and who plans on voting for Campa-Najjar, are listening.
“From scandal-magnet Clinton to scandal-monger Trump, what are we doing?” Theriault said. “Selfishness is not a Christian aspiration.”
On a Sunday morning, 30 days from Election Day, 70 volunteers — some locals and some from the not-too-far cities of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara — staged what they called an “invasion” in the red-leaning town of Escondido, California, to turn out voters.
Bambi Finney, a 61-year-old woman with more than 10 years of experience door-knocking for Democratic campaigns and causes, volunteers for Campa-Najjar five days a week. She says she is cautiously optimistic about his chances.
“This is the first year people say, ‘Yes, we are willing to volunteer,’” she said.
After more than an hour of walking, and near the end of her list, Finney knocked on the door of Elsie, a 76-year-old white woman. With a firm and dismissive, “Have a nice day,” Elsie shut the door in her face. Finney is used to this kind of rejection; she usually checks the “not interested” box on her list and moves on to the next house.
But this time, less than a month from Election Day, Finney paused at the closed door.
“I’m not taking her off my list yet,” she said.
“Maybe next week she’ll see Ammar’s commercial.”