clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Cruel Congressional Campaign of Duncan Hunter Comes From a Familiar Playbook

The Trump supporter and incumbent California politician is embroiled in a scandal while waging a racist fight for re-election against Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar. Hanging in the balance: the fate of Congress.

An image of Duncan Hunter with Donald Trump smiling and clapping in the background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The House race in California’s 50th Congressional district has become the most grotesque election spectacle since Roy Moore’s campaign for the Senate in Alabama. Duncan Hunter, the incumbent Republican congressman, evokes Donald Trump’s lowest moments during the 2016 presidential election. Hunter’s campaign is a disaster. He may win re-election regardless.

In August, a federal grand jury indicted the Republican congressman on charges of wire fraud, unlawful conspiracy, and campaign finance violations; federal investigators say Hunter and his wife appropriated more than $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use and then misled the Federal Election Commission about the spending. Hunter doesn’t just deny the allegations — he says they’re fabrications in a “witch hunt,” led by a Department of Justice determined to overthrow Trump and his key Republican allies. Trump has publicly sympathized with Hunter and echoed the beleaguered congressman’s criticisms. “Two long running, Obama era, investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen were brought to a well publicized charge, just ahead of the Mid-Terms, by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department,” Trump tweeted. “Two easy wins now in doubt because there is not enough time.” In Trump’s estimation, the August indictment was an early October surprise.

House Speaker Paul Ryan has removed Hunter from his three House committee assignments. The federal trial date — November 22 — looms. Still, Hunter, a five-term congressman, persists in his re-election efforts, and the national Republican Party maintains its support for Hunter’s campaign. CA-50 is a conservative district, and so Hunter has turned his TV ads, his speeches, and his interviews into a collective reactionary tantrum. Hunter has described his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, as an “Islamist” seeking to “infiltrate” Congress, and he describes Muslims as “disgusting.” Hunter’s most notorious TV ad falsely insists that Campa-Najjar’s late grandfather—a senior member of the Black September organization in the 1970s—proves Campa-Najjar’s link to Middle Eastern terrorist organizations.

On Friday, the San Diego Union-Tribune published a report disproving the nonexistent campaign donations from the Council on American-Islamic Relations that Hunter (and Breitbart) have fictitiously cited to link Campa-Najjar, a Palestinian Mexican American, to Hamas.

In response to this onslaught of nonsense, Campa-Najjar — who is, in fact, a Christian from San Diego — has called Hunter a lush and a coward. He’s also expressed frustration with Hunter’s refusal to engage him in a conventional debate about federal taxes, Obamacare, or any other public policy concerns that other GOP candidates have prioritized in the final weeks of the midterm election season. Hunter has avoided debates with Campa-Najjar. Despite all the fear-mongering, Campa-Najjar has pulled within striking distance of Hunter in recent polls. The criminal indictment has imperiled Hunter’s political career, and now he’s counting on boisterous xenophobia to rehabilitate him in the closest Congressional race he’s ever run.

Hunter’s xenophobia is a family plan. He’s the son of Duncan Lee Hunter, a 14-term Republican congressman who represented San Diego — and ran for president — before his own son succeeded him upon retirement from Congress in 2009. Hunter Sr. defined his own 2008 presidential campaign in fearful, alarmist terms about immigration from Mexico and South America. The elder Hunter telegraphed Trump’s xenophobia by nearly a decade, and the younger Hunter explicitly billed himself as his father’s successor. Hunter Sr. has chimed into the current Congressional race to echo his son’s claims that Campa-Najjar is “a security risk.” In February 2016, Hunter was the first congressman to endorse Trump for president. “We don’t need a policy wonk as president. We need a leader,” Hunter told Politico, rationalizing his party’s agonized support for such a cruel and illiberal figurehead. “He’s an asshole,” Hunter told his Republican colleagues in August 2017, “but he’s our asshole.” In his re-election campaign, Hunter now plays the asshole, too.

Inevitably, Trump’s startling triumph over Hillary Clinton popularized the president’s political mode — being an asshole — as a model for other Republican candidates. The conservative movement has always hosted the bigotry that Trump and Hunter espouse and enact, but Trump and now Hunter have promoted fringe rhetoric as dominant political arguments; indeed, Hunter has made it his singular campaign strategy against Campa-Najjar. The national political climate is bewildering and horrendous, but most of the major midterm races have proved conventional. In Texas, Ted Cruz has glommed onto Brett Kavanaugh; so, too, has Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee. In Arizona, GOP nominee Martha McSally and Democratic nominee Kyrsten Sinema have turned their Senate race into a referendum on Obamacare. There’s cruelty at the heart of all these debates over health care restrictions, wanton deportations, and the credibility of sexual assault survivors. In Duncan Hunter, there’s only cruelty; there’s no heart or mind to speak of. There’s just a slightly favored Republican incumbent whose little Congressional campaign has gotten downright presidential.