WASHINGTON ― Rep. Duncan Duane Hunter (R-Calif.), also known as the vaping congressman, is battling for re-election in a traditionally red district east of San Diego after being indicted on charges of using campaign funds for personal expenses.
In an effort to survive in November amid what has been a tough political environment for Republicans in California, Hunter has turned to slinging racist and false attacks against his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.
A political newcomer, the 29-year-old Campa-Najjar, who is of Palestinian and Latino descent, would be among the youngest members of Congress if elected. He worked in Barack Obama’s administration as a Labor Department public affairs officer, where he carried a federal security clearance.
But Hunter and his campaign are choosing to focus on Campa-Najjar’s controversial family history, accusing him of changing his name to hide his family’s connection to terrorism and seeking to portray him as some sort of Muslim radical who would present a threat to national security.
“He changed his name from Ammar Yasser Najjar to Ammar Campa-Najjar,” Hunter said at a recent campaign event, according to NPR, “so he sounds Hispanic. … That is how hard, by the way, that the radical Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.”
Campa-Najjar converted to Christianity from Islam years ago. He said he changed his name in honor of his Hispanic mother’s family, which helped raise him. If he really wanted to make his name sound Hispanic, as Hunter claims, Campa-Najjar didn’t do a very good job by retaining most of his original name.
A scary-sounding ad from Hunter’s campaign also accused Campa-Najjar of trying to “infiltrate” Congress, noting that his grandfather, Yasser al-Najjar, participated in the deadly attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Campa-Najjar says he never knew his grandfather, who was killed by Israeli agents 16 years before the candidate was born. Campa-Najjar maintains that he shouldn’t be judged by his family member’s actions, which he has condemned.
He certainly wouldn’t be the first candidate seeking office with some family skeletons in his closet. This year, for example, Republican Walker Stapleton is running for governor in Colorado; his great-grandfather, who died 24 years before Stapleton was born, was once a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Over the weekend, Hunter’s campaign doubled down by releasing a letter that claimed his opponent, if elected, would leak classified information on U.S. military operations to foreign actors. “Would he compromise U.S. operations to protect his relatives, the Najjars?” asked the letter, which was paid for by Hunter’s campaign and signed by three retired Marine Corps generals.
Campa-Najjar’s campaign called on Republican leaders in Congress to denounce what it called the “pathological” and “hate-filled” attack on Monday.
“While Hunter has no human sense of personal accountability, voters understand his family is not responsible for his actions, and I’m not responsible for my family’s actions,” Campa-Najjar said in a statement. “Voters will judge us by our own merits, character, and record this election. May the better man win.”
The attacks from Hunter, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, could prove damaging for Campa-Najjar’s campaign in California’s traditionally conservative 50th Congressional District, outside San Diego. The area boasts a large veteran population, but Hunter’s strategy could backfire by turning off moderate and independent voters.
“This is what Duncan Hunter sees as his best shot. The fact that he went so negative so quickly with that messaging shows that he must be running scared,” said Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.
In an attempt to go on the offense, Campa-Najjar tweeted on Monday that it is Hunter who poses a security risk to the nation because he would have failed an FBI background check, given his allegedly shady activity as a member of Congress.
In September prosecutors accused Hunter of spending campaign cash on affairs with five individuals, citing photographic evidence. He and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were indicted on 60 charges related to the alleged use of $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses such as lavish vacations and dinners. In one instance, prosecutors alleged, the Hunters bought personal clothing items at a golf course so the purchase could be falsely reported as golf balls for wounded veterans.
The couple has pleaded not guilty to all 60 charges. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) temporarily stripped Duncan Hunter of all his committee assignments, including Armed Services, after the charges were filed.
After the indictment, he pinned the blame on his wife, claiming she handled all the family money and, therefore, the scandal was her fault.
Some recent polls have shown him clinging to a lead despite the indictment. His father, Duncan Lee Hunter, held the seat for nearly 30 years before retiring, and Duncan Duane Hunter succeeded him in 2009. Adding to the Democrats’ challenge is the fact that the GOP has a 14-point registration advantage in the district, which Hunter carried by 27 points in 2016.
A Berkeley/Los Angeles Times poll conducted in early October, however, found the incumbent with only a 2 percentage point lead over his opponent.
“This is the race that, despite all odds, is looking competitive,” Kousser said, crediting Campa-Najjar for running a “great” campaign.