Despite grift allegations, Duncan Hunter may be unfazed — but his opponent still sees an opening
Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is running against Congressman Duncan Hunter, speaks to reporters outside the San Diego Federal Courthouse during Congressman Hunter’s arraignment hearing on Thursday, August 23, 2018 in San Diego. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

The indictment of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) on Aug. 21 for allegations of illegally using campaign funds for personal expenditures and vacations was a game changer for Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar in his bid in California’s 50th District.

“The race is within our reach,” Campa-Najjar, a former public affairs officer for the Department of Labor under former President Barack Obama, said in an interview. “When you have a vulnerable incumbent like this, you present a viable alternative.”

But a new poll out Monday shows voters in this Republican-leaning San Diego-area district aren’t so quick to abandon Hunter. SurveyUSA found Hunter has an 8-point lead over Campa-Najjar, 47% to 39%. Even voters who are aware of Hunter’s indictment still give Hunter a 7-point lead, the poll found.

Campa-Najjar, 29, always had an uphill battle in this district, which President Donald Trump carried by a 15-point margin in 2016. But after the indictment against Hunter came down, political handicappers said Hunter’s political future dimmed, and Campa-Najjar’s rose.

While speaking with Mic, Campa-Najjar brought up the indictments any chance he got — a sign his campaign knew that the legal troubles surrounding Hunter presented an opening for the Democratic nominee in this otherwise Republican-leaning seat.

“The 47-page [indictment] says everything a lot of people thought about him, and it’s sad to see,” Campa-Najjar said.

Campa-Najjar didn’t bring up the details of the indictment, which are a doozy. Federal prosecutors allege that Hunter used his campaign war chest as a personal piggy bank, illegally spending more than $250,000 on everything from groceries to clothing to family vacations to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Italy.

In one instance, Hunter allegedly used campaign cash to purchase a pair of Hawaiian shorts that his wife “counseled” him to purchase at a golf shop so that he could designate the charge as “some [golf] balls for the wounded warriors.”

Hunter and his wife were both charged in the scheme, and both pleaded not guilty to the charges. But Hunter blamed the legal woes on his wife.

“She was also the campaign manager, so whatever she did that’ll be looked at too, I’m sure,” Hunter said in an interview on Fox News. “But I didn’t do it. I didn’t spend any money illegally.”

U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, center, leaves an arraignment hearing Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, in San Diego.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, center, leaves an arraignment hearing Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018, in San Diego. Denis Poroy/AP

Hunter opponents have seized on that excuse, including Campa-Najjar.

“Whenever he says the buck stops with me in the next breath he starts blaming everyone else for his problems,” Campa-Najjar said. “You have to be held accountable for your own actions. Own up to it.”

Still, even an indictment might not be enough for Campa-Najjar to oust Hunter.

He has refused to write off Trump voters, though, and said he still needs to be convinced that the government could afford programs like Medicare-for-All before backing it. But even being a moderate Democrat might be too much for the GOP voters in this district to swallow.

There’s recent precedent for a Republican member of Congress winning re-election, despite an indictment: Michael Grimm won re-election in his Staten Island-based House seat in 2014, despite being indicted for tax evasion and hiring undocumented immigrants, among other charges. Grimm eventually was forced to resign after pleading guilty and going to jail, leading to a special election in his seat.

Republicans may have found another issue that could sink Campa-Najjar’s bid: He is the grandson of Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, a Palestinian militant who is believed to have planned the massacre at the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972 that killed 11 members of the Israeli team.

Campa-Najjar was born after his grandfather was assassinated as part of the attacks. But the association alone might be enough to cause headaches for his campaign. He had a biting response to those who will use his family history as an attack.

“A lesson about personal accountability to @Rep_Hunter: I’m not responsible for someone else’s actions, just like your wife isn’t responsible for yours,” Campa-Najjar tweeted, a dig at Hunter’s attempt to blame his legal troubles on his wife.

“The voters will judge us by our own actions and merits,” Campa-Najjar added. “Onward to November.”

Aug. 28, 2018, 5:28 p.m.: This story has been updated.