Faced with the toughest race of his 10-year political career, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) is relentlessly attacking his opponent, Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar in bigoted, xenophobic and false smears.
In a speech to a GOP women’s group at the end of September, Hunter called Muslims “disgusting.”
In that same speech, as well as in a subsequent television ad, Hunter falsely said Campa-Najjar changed his name three months ago to hide an affiliation with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Hunter also falsely claimed that Campa-Najjar is a Muslim trying to “infiltrate” Congress.
“Radical Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government,” Hunter said, in audio obtained by the Times of San Diego. “You have more Islamists run for office at the federal level than ever before in U.S. history.”
Hunter’s campaign then released a television ad — widely criticized by national security experts — with the same false, bigoted claims. Then, this past weekend, Hunter’s campaign sent out a letter claiming that Campa-Najjar could not be trusted with national security information because he is “a member of the Najjar family, which have been heavily involved in terrorist operations and massacres.”
The letter was signed by three former Marine generals who are GOP lobbyists and have long been associated with Duncan Hunter and his family.
“If ... Najjar should get elected and see secret information on U.S. military operations that would endanger members of the Najjar family in the Middle East, would he compromise U.S. operations to protect his relatives, the Najjars?” the letter goes on to ask.
Who is Ammar Campa-Najjar?
Born in East County San Diego, Ammar Campa-Najjar is the son of a Middle Eastern father and Latina mother. At age six, his father left the family, leaving Campa-Najjar to be raised by his mother. She raised him in an Eastlake Christian church. He said part of his involvement was a result of “looking for a father figure.”
“When your dad’s gone, you’re left looking for other people to fill that hole,” Campa-Najjar said in an interview with KQED.
Campa-Najjar was a self-described “knucklehead” in high school, and got into minor trouble with teachers for being flippant and defiant. He described being adrift as a young man, until reading "Dreams From My Father," which Barack Obama wrote years before he was president.
“He had a huge influence on me, huge,” Campa-Najjar said. “I’m a skinny kid with a funny name. My dad wasn’t around. I was trying to figure out who I was, and what I was about.”
Campa-Najjar would end up working on Obama’s campaign, before going on to serve in the Obama administration and the U.S. Department of Labor.
And just as Obama was smeared with false rumors that he was secretly a Muslim extremist with ties to terrorist organizations, so too has Campa-Najjar. A Christian who held a White House security clearance, the 29-year-old Democrat said he expected Rep. Hunter to paint him as an outsider, even though both candidates are from the 50th Congressional District.
“On an emotional level, I was ready for it,” said Campa-Najjar. “And then when I saw [the ads], I’m like ‘this would be funny if this wasn’t so sad.’ It just shows that he’s threatened. I don’t pose a national security risk, but I sure as hell pose a risk to his seat.”
Recent polling from the L.A. Times and other organizations shows that Hunter and Campa-Najjar are statistically tied, with about 10 percent of this conservative district still undecided. More noteworthy is that Hunter has actually lost ground since releasing the anti-Muslim ads.
“We’ve had Republicans who came to our office, who said, ‘We were never going to vote for you, but now, Hunter has just gone too far.’” Campa-Najjar said. “The pennies he’s pinching together, that he has left after spending all his money on legal fees, he’s using to give me more name I.D.”
Those ads center around the fact the candidate's grandfather was a Palestinian Liberation Organization militant who was killed during the 1972 Munich Massacre. Rep. Hunter points to this relationship as the basis for his anti-Muslim attacks.
“His grandfather was the mastermind and perpetrator of the 1972 Munich attacks against the Olympics Israeli athletes,” Hunter said in December. “That was his grandfather.”
Campa-Najjar is frank that one side of his family does have ties to terror.
“I don’t know that grandfather, he died 15 years before I was born,” Campa-Najjar said. “I don’t know them. I know my mom. I know how hard she worked. I know what she sacrificed. And I know that if Hunter is focusing on this, he’s in a lot of trouble.”
“They have to go back three decades to drag up something I have nothing to do with to find questions about whether voters can trust me,” Campa-Najjar added. “I only have to go back three weeks to find questions of whether voters should trust Duncan Hunter.”
Regardless of Election, Duncan Hunter Faces Uncertain Future
The 50th Congressional District is a unique district in that its boundaries contain both some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in San Diego County.
There are dense urban cores in the district, as well as remote urban outposts high in the mountains. A five-minute drive can separate million-dollar tract houses from RV parks with rundown trailer homes.
While serious issues face the district, the race has largely become a referendum on Hunter after his federal indictment this past summer for misusing campaign funds.
Shortly after federal officers charged Hunter, he took to Fox News where he appeared to blame his wife for any wrongdoing. The indictment also contained unsavory details that Hunter misspent funds for shorts and claimed they were for the Wounded Warriors non-profit. The indictment also contains allegations that Hunter used campaign money to pay for everything from lavish vacations to fast-food trips.
Hunter is a former Marine and father of three who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He inherited the seat from his father, also named Duncan Hunter, who resigned in 2008 for a short-lived presidential run.
In his last election, the younger Hunter won the seat by 27 percentage points. Yet, after the criminal indictment — and his response on Fox News — Hunter has seen his polling plummet, resulting in a toss-up race.
As the political reality sets in that Hunter could potentially lose his seat, he has turned to conspiracy theories to explain his current problems. His opponent is part of a “Muslim infiltration.” His own legal trouble started when he was targeted by the “[Former U.S. Attorney General] Loretta Lynch and Obama.”
“There is a deep state,” Hunter said last month in Ramona. “The Justice Department is corrupt. And that should scare you out of your minds. Because the only oversight they have on them, is them.”
That message might resonate with voters in this staunchly conservative area, and there’s a reasonable chance Hunter will win re-election. Yet, less than a month after Election Day, on Dec. 3, Hunter is scheduled for another hearing in the criminal case against him.
“Whatever happens, I go on with my life,” Campa-Najjar said. “But Hunter, he goes on to court.”