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With Hunter Floundering, Democrats Eye Flipping Red California Seat

Retired Navy SEAL, ex-Obama official competing in 50th District

Democrats think that with incumbent California Rep. Duncan Hunter under criminal investigation, they have a chance of flipping a solid GOP seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Democrats think that with incumbent California Rep. Duncan Hunter under criminal investigation, they have a chance of flipping a solid GOP seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter facing legal troubles, Democrats running in California’s 50th District are increasingly hopeful about picking up a reliably GOP seat.

Hunter won his previous elections in the district by high double digits, beginning in 2008, when he succeeded his father, who served in Congress for almost three decades. President Donald Trump carried Hunter’s district by 15 points in 2016.

But Hunter has since found himself under federal criminal investigation for spending campaign cash for personal use. And  as the probe has continued, his campaign funds have dried up — he spent more money on legal fees than he raised last year.

Reports last month said GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who is retiring from the neighboring 49th District, was interested in Hunter’s seat should he decide against a sixth term. A Hunter spokesman told The San Diego Union-Tribune last week the congressman was “100 percent in” for re-election, but two Republicans have already entered the race: San Diego County sheriff’s deputy Andrew Zelt and businessman Shamus Sayed. 

Watch: Fundraising Reports Say a Lot About a Campaign

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Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 50th District race Likely Republican. But Democrats have what they consider two strong candidates in former Obama administration official Ammar Campa-Najjar and retired Navy SEAL Josh Butner. Both outraised Hunter in the fourth quarter that ended Dec. 31. Under California’s jungle primary, the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party, so chances are good that one of them will get there.

Contrasting candidates

Butner has received support on the national level. The leadership PACs of House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley donated to his campaign, according to fourth quarter Federal Election Commission reports. He’s also received support from Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, a retired Marine who is trying to recruit more veterans to run for office.

Butner’s Navy SEAL credentials could help him with the Marines stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton.

Campa-Najjar has received local support. Late last month, he received the endorsement of the state party’s 18th Region, which included delegates from East County and San Diego.

After being outraised by Butner in the third quarter of last year, Campa-Najjar took in $70,000 more than Butner in the fourth quarter and had more cash on hand. 

Campa-Najjar said the money that Butner has raised from Washington has come “at the cost of support on the ground when every single major [Democratic] club endorsed us.”

Shawn VanDiver, who runs a consulting firm in San Diego and ran a PAC to highlight Hunter’s legal troubles, sees that as the difference between the two Democratic candidates.

“I think Josh is playing the D.C. game and Ammar is on the ground game, organizing locally,” he said. 

But an aide to Butner said the candidate had received support from around the district. 

“It’s not about Washington,” the aide said. “It’s about service-driven leadership.”

Trading attacks

While Campa-Najjar is trying to sell himself as an insurgent Democrat, Butner’s campaign has countered that in 2015 Campa-Najjar supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the controversial trade deal that was opposed by many labor unions. It has circulated a 2015 statement from the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce supportive of the TPP when Campa-Najjar was the group’s communications director.

Campa-Najjar  defended himself, saying that while he was listed as a press contact, “I didn’t write the release.” He added that while working at the U.S. Department of Labor, he saw the negative effects of trade deals.

In addition, Campa-Najjar pointed out that, despite the attacks, he still received endorsements from unions like the Service Employees International Union California.

“It’s really, really shameful because [Butner’s campaign] must really underestimate [union members’] intelligence,” he said.

VanDiver said that regardless of who makes it out of the primary, both Butner and Campa-Najjar are strong candidates.

If they were running in a swing district, “those guys would walking away with the election,” he said.

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