VALLEY CENTER, Calif. (CN) – The top contenders vying to replace former Rep. Duncan Hunter in what’s considered one of the last Republican strongholds in California – including a former congressman and millennial Democrat – sparred in a rural northeast San Diego County community Friday night.
Friday night’s debate was the first between the top candidates hoping to replace the convicted former congressman who pleaded guilty to a single charge of campaign finance fraud this past December.
While California’s 50th Congressional District is considered a reliably red district, second-time Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar led the latest poll where 26% of likely voters said they’d cast their ballot for him, indicating changing demographics could swing the district to the left in coming years.
Campa-Najjar was the closest a challenger ever came to beating Hunter during his tenure – coming within four percentage points of unseating the six-term congressman in 2018, who continued his father Duncan Hunter Sr.’s legacy of representing the district.
But Campa-Najjar still has his work ahead of him before the March 3 primary election in California, as former Rep. Darrell Issa secured major Republican Party endorsements by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich this week.
Hunter Sr. has also endorsed the former District 49 congressman to replace his son, even though Issa chose not to run for reelection in 2018 after facing weekly protests by advocates pressuring him to resist President Donald Trump’s agenda.
He addressed his decision not to run for reelection in 2018 at the debate Friday, saying he opted not to run for reelection because he’d “retired” and been nominated to a position in the Trump administration and was in the process of getting confirmed as recently as August 2019 before he considered running again for Congress.
“Leaving Congress to join the administration is not running from your district,” Issa said.
Issa was nominated to director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. His confirmation hearing scheduled for this past September was postponed after Senate members were denied access to his FBI file.
Issa pointed out winning back the seven red congressional seats lost in California to Democrats during the 2018 “Blue Wave” is his focus moving forward and disputed he didn’t “fight” for his District 49 seat, as he carried it in 2016 even though Trump lost the district by nine points.
Despite his name recognition and time spent in Congress, Issa’s not a shoo-in for the conservative vote, especially in light of a controversial political attack ad that aired last month. Politicians from both parties denounced the ad as a homophobic jab at his competitor, former San Diego City Council member and conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio.
Issa was asked to address the advertisement controversy at the start of the debate. He pointed to newspaper headlines and DeMaio’s history of running former political campaigns as a gay Republican.
DeMaio said he didn’t care what Issa called him, but that he “lies” about his position on immigration.
“The voters don’t give a rip about the issues that you’re trying to raise and I think they see through your lies, congressman,” DeMaio said.
“What they care about is having a congressman who is going to stand up and fight for them on the issues that matter, not issues that have no relevance in a political campaign,” he added.
On the issue of immigration reform, Campa-Najjar said he agrees with an immigration reform proposal Issa introduced in 2013 to give legalization to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But he said the U.S. needs to stop deporting veterans who get caught up in the law when they return from deployment with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“They deserve citizenship. They earned it more than we did – we were just born here, they fought for this country,” Campa-Najjar said.
Jones, who served three terms in the state Assembly in addition to his time in the Senate, discussed his concerns about California’s increasing cost of living driving people to flee the state.
He said state – not federal taxes – “is what’s crippling” Californians and driving them to move to less expensive states.
Jones pointed out California is losing representation in federal government due to residents moving, noting for the first time the state didn’t gain a congressional seat following the 2010 census and is likely to lose one or two congressional seats following the census this year.
The debate was hosted by the Valley Center Business Association and the local newspaper Valley Roadrunner/ Times-Advocate.