Regardless of the eventual outcome, it's fair to say the race in California's 50th Congressional District between a sitting Republican congressman indicted for campaign finance violations and a populist Democrat is one of the strangest in this year's midterm election cycle.
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R) has been in Congress since 2009. His district, which was previously represented by his father, is considered the most conservative in the state. Hunter has distinguished himself in Congress with his hardline position on immigration and his views on climate change. "Nobody really knows the cause," he told the San Diego East Chamber of Commerce in 2009. "It could be caused by carbon dioxide or methane. Maybe we should kill the cows to stop the methane, or stop breathing to stop the CO2. Thousands of people die every year of cold, so if we had global warming it would save lives."
In late 2017 the House Ethics Committee announced that Hunter was under criminal investigation for alleged violations of federal campaign finance law. Hunter was indicted along with his wife, Margaret, on charges ranging from wire fraud and the falsification of records to conspiracy. They are accused of using official funds for tequila shots, Riverdance tickets, Italian vacations, trips to Las Vegas, and airfare for a pet.
It would appear that the Hunters have been in a bad financial position for many years. The indictment says that they have "spent substantially more than they earned." It would be easier to sympathize with their plight — among other things they struggled to pay school tuition and medical bills and were charged nearly $38,000 in overdraft fees by their bank — if the congressman were not resolutely opposed to subsidized government health care for millions of Americans who are much poorer than he is and against regulation of the finance industry.
Meanwhile Hunter has decided to show the world what a real man looks like by blaming his wife for the charges while simultaneously dismissing them as a "witch hunt." He has also pushed forward with his re-election campaign. This has involved, among other things, running one of the most lurid, over-the-top ads I have ever seen.
"Ammar Campa-Najjar is working to infiltrate Congress," the narrator says over an X-ray-reversed photo of his Democratic opponent. Campa-Najjar is then accused of changing his name in an attempt "to hide his family's ties to terrorism." The man himself is accused of carrying out a plot on behalf of "the Muslim Brotherhood." The final shot is a picture of Campa-Najjar captioned in an antique font that seems to evoke the world of typewriters and old-fashioned FBI reports reading "Conclusion: Security Risk."
While it is true that Campa-Najjar's paternal grandfather, Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar, was involved in planning the massacre at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, I am not so sure there is anything especially sinister about having a double-barreled last name or indeed about changing one's middle name from "Yasser" to "John" in a country in which terrorist sympathies can be imputed on the basis of names and ancestry. As it happens, the 29-year-old never met his grandfather, who was killed before he was born. Campa-Najjar worked for the Obama administration and passed a number of federal background checks. So far as I am aware, there is absolutely no evidence that he is anything but a decent, patriotic American. There is no evidence to suggest that he has ever been endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, among other reasons, one suspects, because he is a Catholic. He has certainly never been charged with any serious federal crimes, never mind ones for which he was willing to sell out his wife.
Campa-Najjar says that Hunter's attacks have backfired. "We've raised money off of [Hunter's] ad," he told a reporter recently. Recent filings confirm that he has raised $100,000 more than his opponent, whose party seems to be abandoning him. He was removed from all of his committee assignment by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan back in August, and despite his own early support for Donald Trump he has not been endorsed by the president. (Trump has, however, blamed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the charges against Hunter and suggested that the outcome of the race is "now in doubt.")
Meanwhile Campa-Najjar is running one of the most interesting campaigns of the fall, presenting himself as a populist progressive who supports universal health care and "sensible immigration reform that lifts rather than depresses wages." He is one of the only Democrats in the country who has spoken at length about his eagerness to work with President Trump on issues such as jobs and infrastructure. "A lot of conservatives are pleasantly surprised to meet a Democrat who uses words other than impeachment when describing the president," he said recently.
In recent polls, Hunter continues to enjoy a nearly double-digit lead over his challenger, though Democrats say their internal numbers — imagine that — suggest the race is a dead heat. A Campa-Najjar victory would be an astonishing upset even in the present circumstances. It would also be a small triumph for decency.