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Politics

Republicans fail to endorse a candidate for 50th Congressional District

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Republican candidates for the 50th Congressional District, incumbent Duncan Hunter (left), former Congressman Darrell Issa, state Sen. Brian Jones and former San Diego city councilman Carl DeMaio take part in the Republican Party of San Diego County’s forum on Monday.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

This marks the first time incumbent Rep. Duncan Hunter has failed to get the Republican Party’s full support.

San Diego Republicans failed Monday to back a candidate for the 50th Congressional District, including the candidate who currently holds the seat.

None of the four candidates received the two-thirds majority necessary to get an endorsement from the Republican Party of San Diego County. Forty-nine members cast ballots after a forum and the results were confidential.

A photo obtained by the Union-Tribune shows one of the four votes resulted in 21 delegates siding with former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio.

Incumbent Rep. Duncan D. Hunter and State Sen. Brian Jones received 14 votes each. Former Congressman Darrell Issa did not receive any votes.

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A representative of Jones’ campaign said in an email Tuesday that DeMaio won the first round but was eliminated in the second. Jones defeated Hunter in the third and final round, but not with the two-thirds majority required to win, his campaign said.

DeMaio said the two-thirds vote is a “pretty hard hill to climb,” and he wasn’t depending on party endorsement.

“It was always an extra,” he said. “It was never factored into our campaign strategy to win.”

This marks the first time Hunter has failed to get the Republican Party’s full support. Hunter, a six-term congressman, and his spokesman declined to comment afterward.

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Hunter faces three, high-profile Republican opponents and is preparing for a federal trial on charges of campaign finance violations.

The bi-monthly Republican meeting featured a town hall forum, providing a rare occasion where all four candidates appeared at the same event.

Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric moderated the debate, which included opening and closing statements, and he posed five questions to each of the four candidates.

Much of the night centered around Republican unity, with Krvaric reminding candidates several times to “stay positive” and focus on the issues.

“I will not tolerate any beating up of a Republican candidate,” Krvaric said. “To the candidates, we want to hear what makes you different .... Do not throw mud at your fellow Republicans in the room.”

The 50th District covers a swath of the county east and north of San Diego, a region previously considered one of California’s most reliably red seats that has shown a strong loyalty to the Hunter name for decades. Hunter is in his sixth two-year term and his father, Duncan L. Hunter Sr., served from 1981 to 2009.

“I’ve been fighting for you for 11 years,” Hunter said to the crowd. “You know where I stand on the issues.”

But Hunter now is considered a vulnerable incumbent. He was victorious against his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, by fewer than 9,000 votes last year — about 10 weeks after a federal indictment accused him and his wife of illegally spending more than $250,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a trial scheduled for January, weeks before the March primary.

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Hunter said he’s ready for the battle.

Even when federal prosecutors “indicted me months before my election and tried to steal my seat, I still won,” he said. “I’m not going to move somewhere and fight for the easy seat .... As a United State Marine, what we do is we stand and we fight.”

According to a recent poll, Hunter trails his Republican opponents, with 11 percent of the vote. All four candidates face an uphill climb against Campa-Najjar, who leads the poll with 31 percent.

DeMaio used questions from the forum to highlight many of his step-by-step plans for the country. He received applause and cheers for his ideas on immigration and supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda.

“We had 39 Republicans cut and run last year,” DeMaio said. “The president needs an entire team who will stand with him and fight, and that is exactly what I plan to do.”

As the host of a daily news and politics radio show, DeMaio already had a platform to advertise his candidacy and a built-in fan base, though it’s unclear how much of that fan base is based in the 50th District. The poll, conducted by SurveyUSA for the Union-Tribune and 10News, shows him leading the GOP candidates with 20 percent.

A crowd of DeMaio supporters lined the parking lot entrance of the hotel, donning “Make America Great Again” hats and waving DeMaio signs at passing cars.

“The energy and enthusiasm of the grass roots movement behind my campaign is undeniable,” DeMaio said.

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Issa, a nine-term congressman who represented northern San Diego County for nearly two decades, announced in September his bid for the seat, just after his confirmation to a Trump Administration trade position was stalled by Senate Democrats.

The former congressman does not live in the district, which his opponents were quick to point out, but experts say he has the experience and network to target Hunter’s district.

“I’m not running because this is an easy seat. I’m running because I’m concerned about it,” Issa said. “If Duncan Hunter is able to, quite frankly, survive what he’s facing, then we can have a whole different discussion. But if not, you need a conservative on day one that will do the job.”

Issa was the wealthiest member of Congress during his tenure, with an estimated net worth of $283 million, according to financial disclosure forms he filed while in office. The poll shows him holding 16 percent of the vote.

He appealed directly to the delegates in his closing statement, cautioning them to weigh their endorsement choice carefully.

“You have a seated U.S. congressman who has a stellar voting record. You have a state senator who hasn’t done anything wrong …. If the delegates tonight endorse any one of us, they endorse against three of us,” Issa said. “Do you want to really say that Duncan Hunter needs to go?”

It’s unclear if Issa’s plea had an effect on the final vote. The former congressman left before giving his final 10-minute statement to committee members.

Descanso Republican Larry Wilske, a retired Navy SEAL and former candidate for the 50th District, endorsed Issa when Wilske withdrew from the race.

He said Issa’s credentials, among other things, make him the most qualified candidate.

“He will immediately go in and be a ranking member of whatever committee he’s on,” he said. “A freshman ... will be told to shut up and vote and won’t have as much impact.”

Wilske added Issa is more likely to help Republicans gain momentum in the San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino County area.

“We’ve lost so much ground in Southern California. Here’s a guy who’s a strategic thinker, a good veteran ... and that gives us a strategic foothold to gain back some of that territory.”

Ed Welch, 78, said he thinks Hunter is going through a “mid-life crisis” and Issa is probably the candidate who mirrors his values as a Republican voter.

He said he’s seeking a candidate who will defend voters’ rights.

“I see Democrats, socialist Democrats, attacking the Constitution,” Welch said. “What I’m doing now is promoting those who’ll defend the Constitution.”

Besides Hunter, Jones is the only GOP candidate who lives within the 50th District, a point he stressed several times during the debate. He served on Santee City Council before moving on to the Assembly and then State Senate this year.

He received the most support from the crowd when speaking about gun rights and abortion.

Ending the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade is “one of the most important issues to save America and make it great again,” Jones said.

Krvaric said the party’s official endorsement is not essential but can help a candidate’s campaign in a variety of ways.

“A lot of voters are looking for that as their clue on who to vote for,” Krvaric said. “The party can be a good supplemental vehicle to any campaign to get the vote out.”

The Federal Election Commission limits individual donations to candidates to $2,800, but the party can take unlimited contributions, which Krvaric said, can go toward a candidate’s campaign efforts.

Following the vote in the 50th District, the committee late Monday night continued voting on who to endorse in the San Diego County Board of Supervisors races and the 76th Assembly District election, among others.

Updates:
10:33 AM, Oct. 15, 2019: This article was updated with information on the committee’s vote from the Brian Jones campaign.

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