SAN DIEGO (CN) – Congressman Duncan Hunter’s guilty plea to a single charge of campaign finance fraud late last year and his resignation this week has made the 50th Congressional District race one of the most-watched 2020 races in the nation, as a millennial Democratic candidate makes his second attempt to flip the Republican stronghold.
Campa-Najjar bets on himself a second time
Hunter, a six-term congressman first elected in 2008, officially left office Jan. 13. The same day, a poll by The San Diego Union-Tribune and 10News conducted by SurveyUSA showed Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar leading the field of 10 candidates with 26% support.
Former District 49 Rep. Darrell Issa and Carl DeMaio, a conservative talk show host and former San Diego city councilman, are essentially tied with 21% and 20% support among likely voters, respectively.
The fellow Republican state Sen. Brian Jones also had double-digit support with 12%.
In an interview, Campa-Najjar said he’s been running to flip the longtime Republican-held seat for three years nonstop.
While he recognizes 40% of registered voters in the district are Republican, he said it’s “60% everything else.”
“I’m the only one making the case I want to represent everybody: Democrats, Republicans and independents,” Campa-Najjar said.
“I’m a realistic, common-sense person. I don’t think solutions exist on the fringes of either party,” he added.
Campa-Najjar said he supports “cracking down” on illegal immigration but that immigration reform is needed to give legal permanent status to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and their parents.
He said he supports increasing border security and infrastructure measures, complimenting Hunter’s participation with the bipartisan San Diego congressional delegation in securing funding for border infrastructure and addressing an ongoing international sewage contamination crisis in the Tijuana River Valley and Pacific Ocean.
But Jenny Weddel of the progressive group Indivisible Fallbrook said she never felt Hunter represented her well.
“He tended to focus on things I don’t think were good priorities. I’m concerned about climate change and the longer wildfire season and he wasn’t actively focused on that,” Weddel said.
“He has represented a very small subset of white, conservative constituents. But the progressives of this district are becoming more involved and more hopeful and there are more of us than people give us credit for,” Weddel added.
She said she believes independent and no party preference voters can be “swung” toward progressive issues.
While she doesn’t feel Hunter improved the district, Weddel said she’s witnessed Campa-Najjar go out of his way at town hall meetings to address constituents donning red “Make American Great Again” hats.
“The things Ammar is running on are something everyone can agree with,” Weddel said. “Everyone wants their health care costs lowered; everyone wants more jobs brought to District 50.”
But whether Campa-Najjar can succeed in the March 3 California primary election or even be the first Democrat elected to represent the 50th District in decades doesn’t necessarily hinge on middle-of-the-road policy positions, according to University of San Diego Political Science Professor Carl Luna.
“Ammar Campa-Najjar came so close last time because of that scandal hanging over Hunter,” Luna said in an interview.
“For Democrats it comes down to two things: turn out and turn out. There’s a narrow window for a Democratic victory. I think it’s more narrow than in 2018; it’s the reddest district in California,” Luna said.
Luna postured the possibility of a special election to replace Hunter prior to the November election would likely hinge on the odds of Campa-Najjar being able to win it outright. Gov. Gavin Newsom must have not liked the odds: After Hunter announced his last day in Congress, Newsom said he would not order a special election for District 50.
Republicans vow to bring something new
Republican candidate Carl DeMaio has had a groundswell of support among voters who believe the former chairman of political action committee Reform California can bring Republicanism back to a state controlled by a supermajority of Democrats.
In the first 24 hours after Rep. Hunter entered a guilty plea for campaign finance fraud, DeMaio’s campaign raised over $100,000.
The latest poll shows DeMaio is neck-in-neck with former Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the wealthiest people to have served in Congress, who threw his name into the hat more than a month after DeMaio announced he was running.
Several Republicans who were also vying for a spot on the November ticket threw their support behind Issa and withdrew from the race, including retired Navy SEAL Larry Wilske and El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells.
Duncan Hunter Sr., a former congressman as well, endorsed Issa after his son pleaded guilty.
Issa did not respond to an email request to be interviewed.
When he announced his candidacy, DeMaio called out the “old guard” of California Republicans, including Hunter. In an interview, he said “they’ve shown to be seat warmers.”
“They’ve run unspirited campaigns; I represent a new energy, a new generation of leadership,” DeMaio said.
“I think we need more of a fight in California,” he added. “I’m not just doing this to win one seat, I’m doing this to build a movement.”
DeMaio, who led the failed effort to repeal California’s gas tax in 2018, said he represents a “solid departure from the Good Old Boys’ network” that reelected Hunter even after he was indicted in August 2018.
“People know I will call out my own party if necessary when they step out of line from our core philosophy,” DeMaio said.
Voter Jeanne Bunch has been volunteering with DeMaio for a year and a half, first working on the gas tax repeal and collecting signatures to recall state Sen. Josh Newman for voting in favor of the gas tax. DeMaio led the successful recall effort.
“We need someone to stir things up. There are those of us who feel there’s a tiny ray of hope,” Bunch said of DeMaio.
Originally a Hunter supporter, Bunch said she threw her support behind DeMaio when “it became clear he would not be a congressman anymore.”
“I was highly supportive of Duncan Hunter before the trouble began. I thought he was an excellent congressman,” Bunch said.
State Sen. Jones, also running to replace Hunter, said in an interview his track record representing the district in local and state offices for 20 years has landed him most local endorsements. While Jones touted his conservative voting record, including on pro-life issues, he said he’s still been able to work with Democrats to get bills passed.
“I had seven bills signed by Gov. Newsom; voters see that and know I will represent their values and at the same time get things accomplished,” Jones said.
Jones said whoever succeeds Hunter needs to continue his legacy of working on military and veterans’ issues and said there needs to be a San Diego representative on the Armed Services Committee now that Rep. Susan Davis is retiring and vacating her spot.
Jones said he thinks his district is ready to move past the campaign finance scandal that colored Hunter’s last term in Congress.
“A lot of people were supportive along the lines of ‘you’re innocent until proven guilty,’” Jones said. “Once he pled guilty, I think there was a breath of relief throughout the district. I think a lot of people in the district are relieved there’s closure on the issue.”