SAN DIEGO (AP) — Embattled Rep. Duncan Hunter held an 8-point lead Wednesday in a race that tested the strength of partisanship as the GOP incumbent tried to overcome the stigma of facing federal corruption charges.
Hunter had 54 percent of the vote over Democratic newcomer Ammar Campa-Najjar with nearly than 120,000 votes counted – and thousands remaining – in the deeply red San Diego-area district.
Campa-Najjar, a former Obama White House aide, was largely unknown in the district east of San Diego until Hunter and his wife were charged in August with illegally spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses ranging from family trips to shots of tequila.
Campa-Najjar, 29, grabbed attention because of the charges and Hunter responded by fueling a bitter campaign that some say exploits racial prejudice and xenophobia.
Hunter, 41, who first won the seat 10 years ago after his father stepped down, has called the charges a political witch hunt. He and his wife have pleaded not guilty.
Hunter is one of two Republican congressmen seeking to win re-election while under indictment, a rare feat in U.S. history. The other is Rep. Chris Collins of New York, who is charged with insider trading. Both representatives ran low-key campaigns that largely avoided the media and relied on attack ads.
The campaigns of both lawmakers, who were early supporters of President Donald Trump, are considered a fresh test of partisanship in the Trump era and whether voters will overlook the taint of suspicion to help the GOP remain in power.
Janet Wallace, a nurse “over 60” from Santee, said she couldn’t believe Hunter had the audacity to run after being indicted. Campa-Najjar got her vote, but she said she would have voted for anyone but Hunter.
“I would have voted for my dog over that man,” said Wallace, who didn’t disclose her political party affiliation.
Robert Knapp, 59, a Santee Republican, who services trucks and buses, said he voted for Hunter in the past, but struggled with whether to continue that support after the charges. Ultimately, he decided to stick with the incumbent.
“I had a lot of regrets about deciding to go with Duncan Hunter, but I was also more concerned about the border and things like that, which overtook my decision,” Knapp said.
The region east of San Diego was not among the California districts Democrats targeted to pick up 23 seats nationwide to win control of the House. Registered Republicans have a nearly 15-point edge over Democrats in the inland district that went double digits for Trump in 2016.
In the June primary – before the indictment – Hunter received 47 percent to Campa-Najjar’s 17 percent.
But in the last month, polls suggested the race was tightening and Campa-Najjar’s campaign contributions nearly doubled after the indictment.
Hunter, a Marine veteran, stepped up his attacks, raising questions about Campa-Najjar’s Palestinian father who served in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and his grandfather who was involved in the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics that killed 11 Israeli athletes.
Campa-Najjar was raised by his Mexican-American mother in San Diego and said he had little to do with his Palestinian father. His grandfather was killed by Israeli commandos before he was born.
Hunter’s campaign ad claimed his rival, who was given security clearances to work in the Obama administration, is a “security risk.”
Dozens of national security experts assailed the Hunter ad as racist.
It’s unclear how effective the attacks have been in the district that abuts Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and has a large veteran population.
Campa-Najjar has tried to appeal to voters by emphasizing he wants to work with the Trump administration on job creation and infrastructure improvements.
His campaign ads call Hunter an embarrassment and ask voters to “put country over party.”
On the eve of the election, Campa-Najjar sent to voters what he called a “farewell letter” to Hunter that criticized the congressman for not attending numerous town hall and debate events and for sending his father, Duncan Hunter Sr., as a proxy to confront him at a press conference.
“Neither of our fathers are running for Congress,” he wrote. “For this reason and so many others, I believe you are unfit to serve.”
Hunter spent the last day of the campaign walking the 50th District, waving signs and meeting people in person to talk about his support of Trump’s border wall plans, rebuilding the military, cutting taxes, and defending the Second Amendment, among other issues.
His spokesman Michael Harrison said in response to Campa-Najjar’s letter, “it’s amateur hour over there.”
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