Campaigns

Duncan Hunter’s expected exit could be a relief for GOP

Republicans are confident they will hold Hunter’s seat without him on the ballot

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter announced he would plead guilty to using campaign funds for personal purposes, he also indicated he wouldn’t run for reelection. That’s likely welcome news for Republicans looking to hold on to his seat. 

“We’re going to pass it off to whoever takes this seat next, and we’ll make sure that that’s a seamless transition,” Hunter told KUSI News on Monday. “I think it’s important to keep the seat a Republican seat.”

[Duncan Hunter pleads guilty to conspiracy to misuse campaign funds]

Hunter implied he would resign, stressing that his office would remain open and continue with constituent casework, but the timing of his resignation remains unclear. Until this week he had insisted he was innocent and that he would be running for an seventh term.

Hunter was in for a competitive reelection race amid his legal and ethical troubles. He had drawn several GOP challengers, two of whom are well known and well funded, and his 2018 Democratic opponent is also running again. Hunter nearly lost reelection last year while under indictment, so his apparent decision not to run for again could help Republicans keep the deep-red 50th District in GOP hands.

“Hunter was the only Republican who could have lost that district,” said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Timing uncertain

The timing of Hunter’s expected resignation is still unclear. His campaign spokesman Mike Harrison wrote in an email Wednesday that Hunter is in Washington “discussing next steps with Republican leadership.” Harrison said Hunter “will have an announcement when those conversations have concluded,” although he did not have a timeframe.

Some strategists speculated that Hunter could be waiting to figure out the timing of a special election to replace him, particularly whether it would coincide with the state’s March 3 primary. Under California law, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has 14 calendar days after a vacancy occurs to issue a proclamation for the special election to be held within 140 days.

The filing deadline for the race is Friday. If Hunter does not file to run for reelection, that deadline would be extended to Dec. 11. It’s not clear if more candidates would jump in the race with the additional time.

Any other GOP candidate could have a difficult run against the top two Republicans who had been challenging Hunter, former GOP Rep. Darrell Issa and former San Diego City Councilman and radio talk show host Carl DeMaio. Neither lives in the district, but both benefit from high name recognition.

Issa has not yet filed a fundraising report, but he is independently wealthy. He also previously represented about roughly one-third of the district before the congressional lines were redrawn. DeMaio had more than $1.2 million on hand at the end of the most recent fundraising quarter on Sept. 30. 

On the Democratic side, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who worked in President Barack Obama’s administration and lost to Hunter by 3 points in 2018, has secured the state party’s endorsement. His campaign had nearly $853,000 on hand.

Retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, who nearly defeated Issa in a neighboring district in 2016, said in September he might run in the 50th District. But Applegate told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that he was no longer considering jumping into the race. 

‘The last outpost’ 

Without Hunter’s baggage, Republicans are confident they will win the seat given that it is one of the most Republican districts in the state, and one of the last remaining GOP districts in Southern California. President Donald Trump carried the 50th District by 15 points in 2016, and Republicans have a voter registration advantage. Forty percent of voters are registered Republicans, while nearly 28 percent are Democrats and 26 percent are not registered with any party.

“This is not like a typical California congressional seat. This is a different world,” said GOP consultant Dave Gilliard, who has worked with both Hunter and Issa. “A lot of us call it the last outpost in California because it is so red-rock conservative.”

Voters in the district, many of whom are active or retired military, tend to be socially conservative. Gilliard suggested Issa would have the upper hand with those voters. DeMaio, who is openly gay, described himself during a failed 2014 congressional run in the 52nd District as a moderate who is “pro-choice.” This time around, DeMaio has cast himself as the “reform candidate” who would shake up Washington.

But Campa-Najjar said he should not be dismissed.

“The pundits have gotten the dynamics and this race wrong for three years,” he said.

Hunter’s exit does not drastically change Campa-Najjar’s approach to the campaign, and he said he will continue to stress working across party lines. Cast as a progressive in 2018, Campa-Najjar contended that he has never fit that label, describing himself instead as an “economic populist.”

He supports funding for a border wall and other forms of border security. He has called for a “World War II mobilization” to combat climate change, but doesn’t support the Green New Deal proposal, which would overhaul the economy. His views have evolved on “Medicare for All,” and he said he backs a public health care option and opposes eliminating private insurance.

“I’m not happy that this has happened to Hunter,” Campa-Najjar said. “But I’m happy that there’s some finality … It’s good to know that we can move on.”

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