A few weeks ago, at a political dinner, Ammar Campa-Najjar bumped into the uncle of the man he had run against for Congress.
Campa-Najjar’s opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, is a former Marine and scion of an ultra-conservative family dynasty in northeastern San Diego County.
During the campaign, Campa-Najjar had been demonized by Hunter and his father, a former congressman, as an Islamic terrorist who was trying to “infiltrate” Congress. The preposterous attacks had garnered news coverage and outrage all over the country. The two candidates never met; Hunter refused to debate Campa-Najjar.
And yet, in the three weeks following the midterm election, Campa-Najjar had gotten to know some of Hunter’s family members when they were thrown together at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters office, observing workers counting absentee and mail-in ballots. Being shoulder-to-shoulder with Hunter’s family after they’d demonized him was surreal.
“We developed Stockholm syndrome a little bit with each other,” said Campa-Najjar, who had campaigned for two years. “When you spend that kind of time together, you can’t help but humanize each other.”
So when Hunter’s uncle recognized his nephew’s nemesis at that political dinner, said Campa-Najjar, “He stood up and gave me a hug and said, ‘You know, a lot of people lose their first time, right?’ I’m like, ‘You understand I am going to beat your nephew?’”
In January, Campa-Najjar filed papers to run again for Congress in the 50th District, which includes Escondido, Julian, Jamul, Ramona, Alpine and San Marcos. They are communities with a large population of active and retired military, and have been immovably Republican for decades.
“I just needed more than two years to take on a 40-year dynasty,” Campa-Najjar said. “I needed to build trust, and trust takes time.”
Imagine what Ammar Campa-Najjar felt like on election night last November.
Supporters were texting: Looking good! You’re gonna pull this off!
Big-time Democrats were calling: You are in one of the few races that we are going to get to call on election night!
“I was like, really?” Campa-Najjar told me the other day when we met for lunch in Escondido, three months after he lost one of the ugliest congressional campaigns in recent memory. “That day, my staff told me, ‘If you start out only five points behind him, you’re gonna win. Eights points is cutting it close.’”
It was always going to be an uphill battle in the 50th District against Hunter, 42. Unlike other traditionally Republican Southern California districts that Hillary Clinton had carried in the 2016 presidential election (thus exposing Republican vulnerability), voters in the 50th had preferred Donald Trump to Clinton by 15 points.
When the first numbers came in, Campa-Najjar was eight points behind. He never caught up.
This, despite the fact that Hunter and his wife were and still are under federal indictment, accused of misappropriating $250,000 in campaign funds for personal use.
Or that Hunter’s father, a former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, staged a patently phony “security briefing” in front of the USS Midway in an attempt to tarnish Campa-Najjar by linking him to the grandfather he never knew, a Palestinian terrorist who was killed by Israelis 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born.
The sliminess of the Hunters’ attacks caught the attention of the national press. NBC’s Chuck Todd described a Hunter spot as the “most disgusting” campaign ad he’d ever seen.
It was not hard to understand why so many conservatives stuck with Hunter. They feared the House would flip (which it did). They also believe that Hunter, whose trial is slated to start in September, is innocent until proven guilty.
In victory, however, Hunter, has become a man without a mission. He has been stripped of all his committee assignments.
Weirdly, he also seems to be engaging in the same behavior that brought him to the attention of federal prosecutors in the first place — spending money at theme parks.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that Hunter filed a campaign finance report in October that included a $214 expenditure at Belmont Park Entertainment, a Mission Beach amusement park. (When asked for a comment by the Union-Tribune, Hunter’s spokesman declined.)
With Hunter’s court date so far away, other Republicans are reluctant to make noise about running. Only one, Temecula Mayor Matt Rahn, has filed candidacy papers. Which is great news, as far as Campa-Najjar is concerned.
“My ideal scenario is that he [Hunter] gets on the ballot and then gets convicted,” said Campa-Najjar, 29, who has a fellowship at the UC San Diego U.S. Immigration Policy Center. “The people who said he was innocent until proven guilty will not stick around for him. I’ll talk to every voter in Ramona, Fallbrook and El Cajon.”
. After raising $4 million and coming so close to Hunter, it’s hard to imagine he’ll have a serious primary challenger from his own party, although a former inspector general with the U.S. Navy, Alex Balkin is challenging him.
Campa-Najjar has a paid staff, is making 30 hours of fundraising calls a week, and, said his campaign manager Marcela Miranda-Caballero, talks to voters at weekly meet-and-greets. If he meets his fundraising goals, she said, she lets him knock on doors on the weekends.
When Campa-Najjar entered the race a couple of years ago, pundits wrote him off. The Democratic establishment was dismissive. Then he finished second in the primary.
As the general election campaign got underway, it became clear that disaffection with President Trump was putting Republican incumbents like Dana Rohrabacher in Orange County, Steve Knight in Palmdale and Mimi Walters in Irvine in jeopardy. Could Campa-Najjar pull it off?
Every time I thought about the impossibility of Campa-Najjar’s quest to unseat Hunter last fall, I recalled something my colleague Mark Barabak said almost a decade ago:
“If I’d have told you a black man with an Arabic middle name would win the White House, and do so carrying states like Indiana and Virginia that Democrats hadn’t won in decades, you’d have called me crazy.”
If Barack Obama was able to win the White House, was it really so far-fetched then to think that Campa-Najjar could take down a Republican family dynasty in an election that essentially purged Republicans from the California congressional caucus?
“Whether in two years, four years, or 10 years,” Campa-Najjar recently told some voters, “I’m going to be your congressman one day.”