SAN DIEGO (CN) – U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter doubled down on xenophobia at a press conference at the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday as late polling shows he’s still likely to win re-election despite facing federal charges of misusing campaign funds and the racist rhetoric his campaign used against his Mexican-Palestinian opponent.
“Right now we have an army of migrants bearing down on the U.S. from multiple third world countries,” Hunter said Thursday as roosters crowed and dogs barked beyond the mesa overlooking the double fences already in place along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego.
“There are terrorist elements in these caravans; you don’t know one or the other. You don’t let anybody into your house without knowing who they are,” the congressman added, echoing similar claims made by President Donald Trump in recent days.
With less than a week before the Nov. 6 election, Hunter – the first congressman to endorse then-candidate Trump’s bid for the presidency – announced he sent a letter to the president urging him to use the military troops being sent to the border to meet Central American asylum-seekers to build a road along the border wall. Hunter said the press conference was not “campaign ploy or stunt.”
“This is not about immigration. This is about building the first part of the wall,” Hunter said before declining to answer reporters’ questions about his re-election campaign or the charges he faces in the Southern District of California.
Federal prosecutors indicted Hunter and his wife and campaign manager Margaret Hunter this past August, claiming they misspent $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses, vacations and school tuition for their kids.
Following the Hunters’ indictment and the congressman’s subsequent removal from congressional committees by House Speaker Paul Ryan, Hunter was still polling favorably and likely to win re-election in District 50, a Republican stronghold.
A poll by 10News and The San Diego Union-Tribune released Tuesday showed the race tightening, however, with Hunter leading by 3 percentage points. The election prognosticator website FiveThirtyEight gives Hunter with a better than 77 percent chance of being re-elected.
But re-election isn’t guaranteed for Hunter and the high-stakes race has gotten ugly.
Hunter’s opponent – 29-year-old first-time candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar – has been the subject of racist campaign fodder falsely linking the staffer for former President Barack Obama to terrorism.
Hunter’s own father, Duncan L. Hunter – who represented the district for decades before the map was redrawn and his son ran to succeed him – held his own press conference to attack Campa-Najjar’s Palestinian heritage and his grandfather’s involvement in the deadly terrorist attack at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Campa-Najjar has renounced the attack. His grandfather, Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, died 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born.
But the racially charged rhetoric hasn’t necessarily convinced conservative voters to support Hunter.
Mark Stiedemann and Irene Chennell, a married couple from Escondido who attended an ice cream social hosted by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fame and Campa-Najjar over the weekend, say they’re supporting Campa-Najjar because “he’s not Duncan Hunter.”
“He’s young, nonwhite and has fresh ideas. But mostly, he’s not Duncan Hunter,” Chennell, a Democrat, said.
Stiedemann, a Republican who voted for Trump in the 2016 primary but not the presidential election, said he’s “looking forward to someone in Congress who represents more than just the military.”
“Ammar will have a far more mature viewpoint on environmental issues. I don’t know his economics basis but I believe in a balanced budget and I disagree with Trump’s tax cuts and increasing the military budget at the expense of everything,” Stiedemann said.
Cohen set up an impromptu ice cream stand at Grape Day Park in Escondido this past weekend where he served up scoops of sticky-sweet Cherry Garcia, Americone Dream and Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream as he campaigned with Campa-Najjar to flip the district in the bitter race.
“For some people, they’re thinking ‘Maybe I’ll just sit this election out.’ Some people are not planning on voting. Some people maybe are Republicans and can’t vote for the indicted guy but maybe have a hard time voting for him [Campa-Najjar]. The reality is if you sit this election out, it is voting for the incumbent,” Cohen told the group of about 100 Campa-Najjar supporters.
Campa-Najjar, who served as a regional field director to re-elect Obama in 2012 before securing a position at the White House, was chosen among seven candidates by Ben & Jerry’s to get his own ice cream flavor – “Ammar-etto American Dream” – to raise money for the campaign.
“I decided to get into this race 22 months ago,” Campa-Najjar told supporters. “My job will be to hold the executive branch accountable, not just be a yes man but be a congressman. Right now we don’t have a congressman, we have a yes man. You don’t have a law maker, you have a law breaker. I want to fix that.”
Debbie Resler of Escondido said she is “so completely disappointed by the lack of ethics and the fact that ever since I’ve lived in Escondido I have not had a representative in the federal government who represents my values.”
The 16-year resident said she believes the fact the Hunters paid back more than $60,000 in campaign funds shows they’re “taking responsibility for at least some” of the misspending they’re accused of.
“It either shows a lack of ethics or gross negligence for an extended period of time; neither is acceptable,” Resler said.
While some Republican voters said they would still vote for Hunter, they also said they will support his removal from office if he’s convicted of the charges.
William Del Pilar of Valley Center said he’s a conservative voter who was formerly registered as an independent and used to be liberal.
Del Pilar said he wouldn’t vote for Campa-Najjar, calling the candidate an “Obama acolyte,” but said he didn’t necessarily agree with how Hunter has campaigned against his opponent.
Del Pilar values that Hunter was a member of the armed service. But “I don’t think Hunter is the long-term solution for the district,” he said.
“I’m not going to play dumb and say Duncan Hunter is innocent. If the courts find him guilty, I’ll be the first to call him to resign,” Del Pilar, who grew up in Panama, said.
Amy Sutton, a leader who runs the groups San Diego Patriots and San Diegans for Secure Borders, attended Hunter’s press conference Thursday.
Sutton said she wants to see a wall built “to stop an invasion of migrants” and that she wouldn’t vote for Campa-Najjar, calling him a “terrorist-linked candidate.”
But Sutton said “that’s on him” if Hunter is convicted of the federal charges he faces.
“If he gets convicted, he has to resign,” Sutton said.
In an interview, San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric said Hunter got the group’s endorsement because “he’s a better fit for the district” and “holds traditional, conservative Republican values.”
As for the criminal charges, Krvaric noted the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty.
“Unfortunately with the timing, there’s no opportunity to resolve this prior to the election, and now it will have to be resolved after the election,” Krvaric said.