Millennial Seeks an Upset in California Conservative Congressional District

Ben Cohen, left, of Ben & Jerry’s joined congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar in Escondido, California in this 2018 file photo. (Bianca Bruno/CNS)

(CN) —  A millennial congressional candidate who attempted to turn one of California’s last Republican strongholds blue in 2018 may succeed in November, after a political dynasty ended earlier this year when former Representative Duncan Hunter was sentenced to 11 months in prison for campaign finance fraud.

Ammar Campa-Najjar has been campaigning in District 50 for the Nov. 3 election since the day after he lost to Hunter in 2018.

He lost by three points to Hunter, who just months before the election was indicted by the Justice Department in a campaign finance fraud scandal unearthed by The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Even though Campa-Najjar didn’t succeed in “blue-ing” the district like in nearby District 49 — where weekly protests at Rep. Darrell Issa’s district office effectively forced him out — Campa-Najjar had gotten closer than any candidate in ousting the Hunter Family.

Duncan Hunter and his father Duncan Hunter Sr., had represented the district — which encompasses east San Diego County and parts of Riverside County — for decades.

Now, Campa-Najjar has another chance to be part of a second “Blue Wave” expected to sweep the country in just 10 days as a rebuke of President Donald Trump’s administration. Recent polls and an upgraded Cook Political Report rating this week suggest he has a good chance.

Republican Stronghold at Risk

University of San Diego Political Science Professor Carl Luna told Courthouse News whether Campa-Najjar succeeds in flipping the district depends on “how much of a blue turnout you get driven by the presidential election.”

“The district is shifting slowly to the blue, voter registration continues to move toward Democrats, but Republicans still have a rare advantage in that district,” Luna said.

“There seems to be a lot more people voting, and one could assume a disproportionate amount would be Democrat. If he wins this year because of a massive ‘Blue Wave’ then that district will have tipped — in many ways that’s what the last couple of elections have been in that district,” Luna added.

But this time around, Campa-Najjar faces another congressional relic Luna postured may not fare well due to his reputation as a “carpetbagger” after abandoning his seat in District 49 in 2018 for a supposed position in the Trump administration which never came to be: former Rep. Darrell Issa.

Luna said Issa’s “baggage from his time in Congress” could work against him in securing the independent vote in District 50, and Republicans who supported former candidate and conservative talk radio host Carl DeMaio may choose to abstain from voting for Issa on Election Day.

But Dee Chavez, a private practice accountant in rural Valley Center, told Courthouse News she was voting for Issa even though she wasn’t an initial supporter of his.

She decided early this year she’d cast her vote for Issa after watching the top three candidates debate in her town prior to the March primary election.

“He was the grown-up in the room between DeMaio and Campa-Najjar,” Chavez said.

“He brought an articulate argument with sound facts and could explain his positions in a measured and logical way without getting all excited,” she added.

Chavez said she saw Issa’s time in Congress as an asset — citing his experience serving as Chair of the House Oversight Committee.

While Campa-Najjar “was very polished” at both candidate forums Chavez attended, “he has no background, no experience and he is going to be lost if he gets elected,” she said.

“We cannot afford at this point to have a training period. We need someone who knows how the cards are dealt and what the rules of the game are,” Chavez said.

Dustin Trotter, a Central Committee member with the Republican Party of San Diego County, echoed Chavez in noting Issa would go back to Congress as a senior member and would immediately get on congressional committees.

For a district that has been without a representative for a year, Trotter called it “a huge thing for moving forward.”

While Trotter noted “there’s no question” there have been more registered Democrats across San Diego County, he said “Issa doesn’t need to move more to the middle.”

“He should stay to the right of conservative values because that is still the prominent registration in the area,” Trotter said.

Campa-Najjar Moving Right to Get Votes

Even though he has a fair shot at flipping the district, Campa-Najjar appears to be feeling the heat to tone down his reputation as a progressive to appeal to independents or Republicans defecting against the party under Trump’s leadership.

Both Campa-Najjar and Issa appeared on a Facebook live show this month with right-wing group Defend East County, an organization formed by community members in District 50 in response to racial justice protests in the city of La Mesa over the summer which turned destructive.

Several buildings, including Chase Bank and Union Bank branches, were set on fire.

While some members of Defend East County joined the group to help clean up their community, the social media page has allowed racism and threats of violence to go unchecked.

In an interview with the group’s founder, Campa-Najjar suggested he may not vote for Joe Biden in the election.

“You think I will vote for Biden necessarily —  I still want to see how they perform in the debates,” Campa-Najjar said.

Backlash from local Democrats who have supported Campa-Najjar was swift, prompting him to apologize for appearing on the show.

San Diego Democratic Party Chair Will Rodriguez-Kennedy told Courthouse News he spoke with Campa-Najjar following the Facebook live show.

“It was very clear Ammar had intended to build a bridge with a group of voters that number in the tens of thousands. But it was also very clear he was not informed with the host of problems with that group,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said.

“I don’t think he lost last cycle because he was progressive. He established the strongest voter turnout in that district in a long time and almost took out a legacy legislator with family history,” he added.

“He has determined voters in the district want a more independent vote, but he understands, because we have spoken, and the Democratic Party has invested in him, that he needs to remain a member of the party. The 2018 Ammar is the Ammar the Democratic Party was supporting,” Rodriguez-Kennedy said.

Diana Fink, one of the three founders of the Fallbrook chapter of the national progressive organization Indivisible, has been turning out the vote for Campa-Najjar and other “down the ballot” Democrats in her conservative neighborhood.

She’s stood on the busiest intersection corner in her neighborhood with a 20-foot long Campa-Najjar sign and told Courthouse News it was “heartening” to get honks and cheers of support from passing vehicles.

Fink said she’s fielded calls from friends asking whether they should vote for Campa-Najjar given his appearance on the Facebook live show.

“I’ve been in a lot of campaigns and you can’t pass the purity test,” Fink said.

“This guy, the day after the midterms, started campaigning again. I’ve never seen someone campaign so long and so hard. I think he made bad decisions and I could see in his ‘I’m sorry speech’ that he was sad when he was saying that. I know he regrets it,” Fink said.

Luna said Campa-Najjar’s “unfortunate appearance” on the Facebook Live show “didn’t help him to close the gap” in votes.

“He made a short-term calculation, it seems, to try and win the election by stealing Issa votes. If he loses this time around, the party may not want to back him in 2022,” Luna said.

“It was probably a fool’s errand to show up on that show because the voters who are going to vote for Trump and Issa are not switching,” he added.

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