Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter has indicated he’s on his way out of office after pleading guilty to a corruption charge, a break for California’s beleaguered GOP that increases the chances the party keeps one of its few remaining House seats in the heavily Democratic state.
But Hunter’s pending departure also comes with a measure of uncertainty. There is no clear Republican favorite to succeed him in the San Diego County district, setting the stage for several months of party infighting in a race that could turn on local political loyalties or the potential involvement of President Donald Trump.
After months of professing his innocence, the 42-year-old Hunter pleaded guilty Tuesday to a single charge of conspiring with his wife to illegally use at least $150,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. Among the improper spending were a birthday gathering for his young daughter at a posh hotel and social outing with friends at a French bistro in Washington.
In announcing his plan to plead guilty, the former combat Marine talked about the need for a smooth transition in his district but didn’t say when he will depart Congress, leaving unclear whether a special election will be scheduled to fill the vacancy.
Hunter is scheduled to be sentenced March 17, two weeks after California’s primary election.
Holding the 50th Congressional District, which has an 11-point Republican registration edge, will be critical if the party hopes to reclaim control of the House after losing it to Democrats in 2018.
Hunter had been actively running for re-election while under indictment. After his guilty plea, San Diego County Republican Chairman Tony Krvaric said the party “is not worried about losing this seat.”
The field of GOP contenders who earlier lined up to challenge Hunter includes Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman who now is a local political commentator and radio host; former Congressman Darrell Issa, who built a national reputation when he headed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and was a foil to President Barack Obama; and state Sen. Brian Jones, who highlights that he’s the only major Republican candidate who lives in the district east of San Diego.
Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 30-year-old former Obama administration official who nearly defeated Hunter in 2018 after the congressman was indicted, is widely expected to be one of two candidates who emerges from the March primary for a November showdown.
Under California election rules, the top two vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
Part of the challenge for candidates will be introducing themselves to voters who have seen the Hunter name on the ballot for decades. Hunter has held the seat for 11 years after being elected to succeed his father, Duncan L. Hunter, who was in office nearly three decades before him.
Seth Raleigh, a 41-year-old electrician who lives in Lakeside, said at a coffee shop that he’s sticking with the Republican Party, despite Hunter’s long-running legal mess. But he didn’t know who is running to replace him.
Democrat Paul Grinvalsky, 65, who lives in Hunter’s hometown of Alpine, is also unfamiliar with the challengers, saying he’d never heard of Campa-Najjar.
Grinvalsky is hoping fallout from the corruption case will help Democrats seize the seat.
“Ï hope he (Hunter) did enough damage so nobody in the district votes (Republican),” he said.
Democrats captured a string of GOP-held House seats in California in 2018, leaving Republicans holding only seven districts among the state’s 53 House seats. There is one vacancy. Freshman Rep. Katie Hill, a rising Democratic star, resigned her Los Angeles-area seat in October after explicit photos of her were posted online, giving Republicans a chance of recapturing a seat the party lost in 2018.
Hunter’s seat represents part of the shrinking turf in California that Republicans can call home. It includes ethnically diverse suburbs at the edge of San Diego that fade into farming and mountainous areas to east, including a small slice of Riverside County. The area is popular with military retirees.
“This is Trump country,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “The conventional wisdom is that only an indicted or convicted Duncan Hunter could lose this seat for Republicans, and now he won’t have that chance.”
Kousser said Campa-Najjar’s job has become tougher with Hunter’s pending exit, noting that the Democrat exceeded expectations in 2018 and showed himself a skilled campaigner and fundraiser.
“It’s too early to count him out,” Kousser said.
Campa-Najjar said voters in the district don’t want “coastal elites and career politicians,” a reference to his GOP rivals. “I think it’s time we have a congressman who has integrity.”
The three main Republicans have strikingly different profiles but share common ground on much of the conservative agenda.
Issa, 66, is a car-alarm magnate who ranked among the wealthiest members of Congress during his time in Washington. The former nine-term congressman didn’t seek re-election in 2018 jn the neighboring 49th District, after barely surviving two years earlier. Issa’s former district has become more Democratic since he was first elected.
Issa, a Trump ally, said he told the president that he would be entering the race after the Senate delayed his confirmation hearing to become director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency.
DeMaio, 45 and openly gay, fell short in earlier races for San Diego mayor and Congress. He’s railed against California’s liberal political tilt and called for stronger border security. He says too many residents have fled the state because “they either cannot afford to live here anymore or they can’t stomach living here anymore.”
Jones, 51, has highlighted his local roots. One potential advantage: His state Senate district overlaps a broad section of Hunter’s House district, meaning many voters will be familiar with him. He previously served in the state Assembly.
San Diego-based Republican consultant Jason Roe said each of the three GOP candidates brings different assets and weaknesses. Issa, for example, can dip into his own pocket for advertising dollars but could be seen as an interloper in the district. Jones doesn’t have that kind of personal wealth but he has strong connections with the politically active evangelical community, he said.
As for the outcome?
“It’s a jump ball,” Roe said.