Ammar Campa-Najjar doesn’t want hate and bigotry to be a distraction this time.
The 30-year-old Democrat narrowly lost a campaign for the historically conservative 50th District in California last year. Now Campa-Najjar is seeking a rematch, and has renewed his demands that Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter be held accountable for anti-Muslim rhetoric.
The last race was swamped in its final weeks by outrage and confusion after the Hunter campaign released an ad baselessly casting Campa-Najjar — a Christian born to Mexican-American and Palestinian parents — as part of a “well-orchestrated plan” by terrorists “to infiltrate Congress.”
Amid last week’s vote for a resolution condemning religious intolerance in light of comments made by Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar, Campa-Najjar accused Republican leadership of a double standard for failing to denounce Hunter for the ads.
Campa-Najjar relaunched his campaign in January and believes he is better positioned to unseat Hunter this cycle, having already attracted the interest of national Democrats.
“It’s a positive time for us,” he said in an interview.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reached out to Campa-Najjar shortly after his surprisingly competitive race.
“The message was, basically, that they wanted to put the race on the front burner and off the back burner. They were impressed with what we were able to do,” he said.
The DCCC promised Campa-Najjar it would not recruit other candidates for the district.
“Compared to our last campaign, the relationship with the national party is better, and I think they’re very respectful of our style and our approach to this district that is unique in a lot of ways,” Campa-Najjar continued. “So I think they’ll help us with advice on best-practices, provide resources, but we’ll be left with the bigger decisions, which I think is a good sweet spot for us.”
Hunter, the incumbent Republican, will face trial in September for 60 federal charges on allegations that he misappropriated campaign funds for personal expenses, including an Italian vacation.
Before the 2018 midterm election, Hunter always won the seat easily. He represents a political dynasty in the suburbs of San Diego, where his father held the seat for decades before him.
But a federal indictment landed months before Election Day, roiling Hunter’s re-election campaign. His 27-point margin in 2016 was narrowed to just 3 points in 2018.
Hunter has not hosted a town hall in his district in two years. But a spokesman said he has held many stakeholder meetings and town halls over the phone and fielded prescreened questions.
The early campaign trail
For the DCCC, Hunter presents not only a pickup opportunity to flip a red district blue, but also an emblem of a key 2020 pillar: corruption.
Despite his indictment, “Republicans continue to proudly welcome … Duncan Hunter (CA-50) to their cocktail parties,” reads a January DCCC memo, which also names the 50th District as one of 33 key targets across the country.
Longtime Hunter challenger Patrick Malloy, a Realtor who prioritizes gun safety, also sees a path forward to the Democratic nomination. But Alex Balkin, a former watchdog with the U.S. Navy, dropped his bid Friday after six weeks of campaigning. He has since endorsed Campa-Najjar.
Meanwhile, Campa-Najjar has been laying groundwork in appearances at local Democratic Party clubs, rodeos and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts.
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“What we found out in the last race is that everywhere that we went as a campaign, we won. We just didn’t go to enough places,” the two-time challenger said.
Balkin predicted his campaign on deficit discipline and “fighting waste fraud, and abuse.” Campa-Najjar describes his own platform as “aspirational.”
For example, his call for “historic investments” to reach 100 percent renewable energy aligns him with the progressive priority of a Green New Deal.
‘A weapon of mass distraction’
Campa-Najjar said he hopes this go-round won’t descend into a referendum on his heritage.
The California race became a national flashpoint last year when the Hunter campaign released an ad
falsely tying Campa-Najjar to the attack at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, which occurred 17 years before the candidate was born, through his estranged father and grandfather.
Campa-Najjar’s fraternal grandfather, Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, was among the founding members of the Fatah political party within the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Historians dispute the degree to which Fatah aided in the planning of the attack and whether al-Najjar was involved, according to a San Diego Union Tribune report.
The candidate has stressed that he was raised by a single mother, and that his grandfather died years before he was born.
The ads were widely decried as smearing Campa-Najjar, who is Christian, by stoking Islamaphobic fears.
“It’s a weapon of mass distraction. I’m not running for Congress to deal with Duncan Hunter’s racism. I wasn’t put on earth to put him in his place.” Campa-Najjar said.
On Thursday, the House passed a resolution condemning anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry and all religious intolerance.
Hunter voted for the resolution. Campa-Najjar called him a hypocrite for his vote.
“He can’t go vote for a resolution against hate while being in office partially because he ran a very racist campaign,” he said. And I think that the Republican Party is complicit, if not explicitly supportive of him.”
While noting he found Omar’s statements about Israel to be “unsavory and insensitive,” Campa-Najjar also detected a double standard in Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s call for further denunciation of the freshman congresswoman beyond the House resolution.
Campa-Najjar said McCarthy’s tough words for Omar ring hollow when a member of the Republican caucus ran what some political observers called one of “the single most shocking and outrageous” ads in modern politics.
“Here is Hunter who called me, a fellow American who was given a security clearance, a terrorist. He and was funded by Kevin McCarthy to peddle that racist, bigoted language. And there has been no focus on him,” Campa-Najjar said, noting his leadership PAC contributed to Hunter.
“If this resolution really has legs and it’s substantive and it is meant to hold people accountable for their bigoted remarks … Hunter’s campaign should be harshly condemned, whether it’s censure or something else. It’s about accountability,” Campa-Najjar continued.
Hunter doubles down
Michael Harrison, a spokesman for Hunter, defended the congressman’s vote on the resolution. But he noted Hunter would have preferred “a simple denouncing of anti-Semitic remarks, not a long, drawn-out 8-page resolution.”
Harrison also doubled down on the campaign’s line of attack, and did not rule out making Campa-Najjar’s family lineage the focus of future television ads.
“We never brought up the fact that he is Palestinian, he brought that up himself,” Harrison said. “I’m not going to speculate about how a campaign is going to be run a year-in-a-half from now, but the facts were never disputed and they are relevant. His family has ties to terrorist organizations.
Asked whether the ads meant to call into question whether Campa-Najjar is loyal to the United States or the PLO, Harrison answered “no.”
“I can’t speak intelligently about where someone’s loyalties lie, but to say those things are not part of the discussion when those national security decisions are being made is not consistent,” Harrison said.
Harrison also repeated the campaign’s separate accusation that Campa-Najjar is tied to terrorism through the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an American Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization.
According to CAIR, the idea that the organization maintains ties to terrorist organizations has been chiefly popularized by Frank Gaffney Jr.’s Center for Security Policy. The far right-wing think tank was deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which said it has long peddled the anti-Muslim conspiracy theory that Sharia is encroaching on U.S. law.
That theory has been echoed by Hunter.
“You had more Islamists run for office this year at the federal level than ever before in U.S. history,” Hunter said to voters in September, according to the independent new site Times of San Diego. “You have radical Islamist propaganda being pushed on the kids in our San Diego school district. Have you seen that? They put them on prayer rugs and they say: We gotta honor every religion.”
Campa-Najjar said the attacks not only overshadowed his campaign message, but also clouded central parts of his identity.
“The notion of loving your neighbor as yourself is probably my top tenet as a person and as a candidate,” Campa-Najjar said.
“My mom’s a union worker. I worked as a janitor as a 15-year-old,” he said. “If people want to make sense of like what motivates me, that’s a more accurate narrative then talking about people that I don’t really know from the other side of the family.”