RAMONA, Calif. (AP) — In Southern California's most Republican congressional district a GOP incumbent running against a first-time Democratic candidate should be a slam dunk for re-election.
Not this year.
Rep. Duncan Hunter is under indictment as he seeks a sixth term. He has spent as much on legal fees as his re-election campaign while splitting time between meeting voters and fighting corruption charges.
It's become a bare-knuckles affair with Hunter's campaign running an ad saying his San Diego-born opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, changed his name to "hide his family's ties to terrorism" and now wants to "infiltrate" Congress. Campa-Najjar responded by saying Hunter has lost his grip on reality.
Even with the 47-page indictment detailing alleged misuse of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds, Hunter is the favorite. Republicans hold a nearly 15-point registration edge in the district, where many military veterans identify with Hunter's service as a Marine in Iraq.
In the June primary — before the indictment — Hunter received 47 percent to Campa-Najjar's 17 percent.
A late September poll by Monmouth University suggested Hunter had a lead between 8 and 15 percentage points. If turnout is like prior midterm elections, Hunter has the larger advantage. But among all people the pollster identified as "potential voters," because they cast ballots since 2010 or are newly registered, the advantage shrinks to 8 points, within the margin of error of plus or minus 5.3 percentage points. Other polls suggest a closer race.
Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take control of the House and Hunter's indictment gives them an unexpected opportunity as they seek to flip five other Southern California Republican seats.
"The district is definitely more competitive than it otherwise would be," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics when assessing Hunter's district. "But it's still a heavy lift for Democrats. From the perspective of Republican voters, they would rather vote in an incumbent under indictment who votes the way they want as long as he can while he's still in Congress."
Hunter is one of two indicted Republican congressmen seeking re-election. The other is New York Rep. Chris Collins, accused of insider trading.
Both were early supporters of President Donald Trump, who sees the charges as retribution for his election. Trump, who won Hunter's district by 15 points in 2016, has criticized the Justice Department for putting "two easy wins now in doubt."
Hunter benefits from deep roots in the district, which stretches east of San Diego into Riverside County and includes suburban and rural areas. His father, Duncan Hunter Sr., served 14 terms in Congress.
The younger Hunter, a 41-year-old anti-tax, pro-military conservative, was expected to have an easy time in November until the indictments came in August. He and his wife, who served as his campaign chair, are accused of misusing more than $250,000 in campaign funds, including more than $400 on tequila shots at a bachelor party, $250 on airfare for a pet rabbit and $14,000 for an Italian vacation.
Prosecutors say the couple concealed many of the expenses in federal records, sometimes as donations to charities for veterans. The Hunters have pleaded not guilty. Hunter has said that as campaign manager his wife dealt with the finances. He calls the investigation a political witch hunt.
Hunter's attorney, Gregory A. Vega, wrote an August letter to the Justice Department urging prosecutors to delay any action until after the election. He wrote the allegations are "intended to embarrass and humiliate the Congressman shortly before a crucial election."
Vega also said that "while there may be evidence of infidelity, irresponsibility, or alcohol dependence," including incriminating photos, "the underlying facts do not equate to criminal activity."
Hunter's campaign has spent about $615,000 on legal fees since 2017 compared to about $600,000 on his campaign, according to reports with the Federal Election Commission. He has declined to debate his opponent and has run a low-profile campaign, choosing to speak to smaller groups and rarely talking to the media.
Campa-Najjar is a former Obama administration Labor Department employee with a Palestinian Muslim father and Mexican-American Catholic mother. Raised Christian, he grew up in San Diego County and if elected would be the first Latino Arab-American in Congress.
Hunter's indictment helped spur interest in Campa-Najjar's campaign. He has raised more than $1 million compared to about $815,000 by Hunter, according to recent campaign finance reports.
Campa-Najjar says his background reflects a changing district where more Hispanics and Middle Easterners are settling. It also is being used against him by Hunter's campaign, which notes Campa-Najjar's grandfather was a leader of Black September, a Palestinian terror group that orchestrated the attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Hunter has accused his rival of changing his name to Ammar Joseph Campa-Najjar to hide his family ties to terrorism and sound more Hispanic. Campa-Najjar was born Ammar Yasser Najjar and Hunter has falsely claimed the middle name was a tribute to longtime Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat.
Campa-Najjar's grandfather died before he was born and he has condemned the Munich attack. He said Hunter "knows I'm not responsible for my family's actions, just like his wife isn't responsible for his."
He said his middle name came from his father, Yasser Najjar. Campa-Najjar's parents divorced when he was a boy and he hasn't seen his father in years. He went informally by Ammar Joseph Campa-Najjar when he worked in the Obama administration and legally changed his name in June to better reflect the closeness to his mother, he said.
Campa-Najjar's campaign has focused on winning over military veterans and conservatives with its slogan "Put Country Over Party" in TV ads that call Hunter an embarrassment. One 30-second spot consists of Fox News hosts and commentators criticizing Hunter for insinuating his wife was to blame for the corruption charges.
He supports Medicare-for-all if it does not increase government debt and free college tuition based on merit and need. Campa-Najjar also said he wants to work with the Trump administration on job creation and improving infrastructure.
"A lot of conservatives are pleasantly surprised to meet a Democrat who uses words other than impeachment when describing the president," he said.
Hunter declined repeated requests for comment.
In the farming community of Ramona that feels more Western than West Coast, several Republicans said while the indictment concerns them, more worrying is the party losing a congressional seat.
"It would not make a difference in my vote because the alternative would be far worse — electing a Democrat," retired marine scientist Hayden Williams said.
Democrats like Sandra Smith, a retired Ramona teacher who volunteered for Campa-Najjar after hearing him speak, are hopeful for the first time in years.
"We feel like there's a lot of energy to really try to flip the district," she said, adding of Campa-Najjar: "He can reach both sides."