Hunter and Campa-Najjar look to veterans to help portray each other as unfit to serve

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) speaks to supporters at a "Build the Wall" rally held near border wall prototypes in 2017.
(Nancee E. Lewis / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

The men and their campaigns could not be more different.

One, a conservative, white former Marine who was elected to Congress in the same inland San Diego County area his father represented for 28 years, is fighting federal charges that he misspent $250,000 in campaign contributions.

The other, a progressive Mexican Palestinian American who served in the Obama White House, has had to disavow the actions of his grandfather, a man who took part in the terrorist attack that killed 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, fighting claims that he’s a security risk, has taken his message national to outlets such as Rolling Stone and MSNBC, and even into the freezer: Ben & Jerry’s created an ice cream flavor for him.


Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, indicted in August on felony charges, has retreated to his reliably conservative district, minimizing public appearances as surrogates speak on his behalf and his campaign attacks his opponent’s family ties.

But as different as the men are, they have a strategy in common: In a district with a large veteran population, they’re relying on the moral authority of those who wore the uniform to try to portray each other as unsuitable for office.

Hunter has sought to tar his challenger as a threat based on his Palestinian heritage and family; Campa-Najjar has highlighted the indictment and its allegations that the incumbent used wounded veterans and the military to try to hide misuse of campaign funds.

“To lie about your brothers and sisters in arms like that shows how little you actually care about them, how little you value the honor, courage and commitment that are the very first words you read when you join the Marine Corps,” retired Marine Brandon Coopersmith said about Hunter.

The Alpine congressman’s campaign distributed a letter from three retired Marine Corps generals claiming Campa-Najjar was a security risk, asking “would he compromise U.S. operations to protect his relatives, the Najjars?”

Former Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, father of the incumbent, speaks next to the aircraft carrier Midway to accuse his son's Democratic opponent of being a security threat based on his heritage and family.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hunter’s line of attack surfaced publicly in September, a month after the indictment. In a recording of his speech Sept. 24 at a Republican women’s club in Ramona, he appeared to suggest Campa-Najjar was a “radical Muslim.”

A widely condemned ad unveiled the same week implied the Democrat was a security risk because of his grandfather, who was killed by Israeli commandos 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born, and falsely claimed the candidate was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. Hunter’s father repeated the accusations at a news conference Oct. 16.

Campa-Najjar’s campaign and others have criticized the attacks as xenophobic and race-based. The ad was listed among five anti-Muslim political advertisements by the civil rights organization Muslim Advocates.

Seventy current and former foreign policy officials condemned Hunter’s ad in an open letter, calling “the baseless allegation … an affront to our professionalism as national security experts, our American values, and our collective national dignity.”

Former Secretary of the Navy John Dalton endorsed Campa-Najjar, saying, “Attacks against one’s heritage are not tolerated in the United States military, and they have no place in Congress or American politics.”

Campa-Najjar has noted he is an observant Christian who held security clearances in the Office of Presidential Correspondence and Department of Labor.

“When the Hunters are putting out these security alerts about Ammar, they’re trying to leverage the credibility of the Marine Corps and the other armed services in their favor to scare people, and that is not what the Armed Forces are about,” said Coopersmith, 32, who left the Marines in 2008 and has since returned to San Diego.

After seeing the elder Hunter’s remarks on local news, Army veteran Dan Wilson, 55, reached out to the Campa-Najjar campaign. “Honestly, I’m disgusted and sickened and saddened that Hunter’s campaign would resort to tactics they’re using, to appeal to basest fears about terrorism and lineage,” said the registered independent, who lives in Oceanside.

Hunter’s campaign maintains that it’s trying to help constituents make an informed decision and that accusations that the ad is racist are misplaced.

“This has been a factual-based campaign about the issues, and we feel that national security is an issue that constituents need to hear about,” Hunter spokesman Mike Harrison said. Hunter was not available for an interview.

Gary C. Jacobson, professor emeritus of political science at UC San Diego who specializes in congressional elections, said Hunter’s attacks are “right out of the Trump playbook.”

“It’s a sign of how serious trouble he thinks he’s in,” Jacobson said. “In normal circumstances, he would just ignore his opponent and coast to reelection. Since he’s got a real opponent and he’s got so much baggage himself, he’s got to convince people they still should vote for him.”

Ammar Campa-Najjar answers questions from the media after his opponent's father claimed the Democrat would be a security risk. Behind the candidate at center is retired Marine Brandon Coopersmith.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Campa-Najjar’s highlighting of veteran supporters and his security clearance is a “reasonable, sensible” move, Jacobson said, but unlikely to win over a highly partisan district.

About 10% of the exurban district’s population served in the Armed Forces, among the highest rates in California, U.S. census data show. In Escondido, one of the district’s largest cities, 45 hero banners fly from Memorial Day to Armistice Day every year to honor some of the locals who’ve served.

Hunter, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has introduced legislation that increase veterans’ funeral benefits, make it easier for active-duty military to refinance their homes and reevaluate military awards processes.

Helping veterans is important to Hunter, Harrison said, because of his personal experience and his constituency. About half of the cases that arrive in Hunter’s office are related to veteran or military affairs, Harrison estimated.

Jim McLaughlin, 77, said he asked the congressman about the allegations and was satisfied with Hunter’s explanation. The Air Force and California National Guard veteran said he believed the indictment was politically motivated.

The document alleges that Hunter’s wife, who is also charged, told him to buy shorts at a golf course pro shop so they could be expensed as golf balls for wounded warriors; it alleges Hunter used an expletive to disparage the Navy when denied a facility tour he aimed to use to justify spending campaign funds on a family trip to Italy.

Navy veteran Kenneth Auzette, 58, agreed with McLaughlin: “Innocent until proven guilty.”

Despite the indictment, Hunter is predicted to maintain 81% of people who voted for him in 2016, according to a SurveyUSA poll.

Campa-Najjar has tried to strike a delicate balance in the conservative district. He invokes President Reagan’s vision of an America made great by immigrants and the late Republican Sen. John McCain’s calls for civility. He wants to expand Medicare and shift toward 100% renewable energy, but favors repealing California’s gas tax increase and has said he’s willing to work with President Trump.

“Ammar talks to me and really wants to know what he needs to do as a congressman to help veterans, support veterans get the right healthcare,” said Danny Jackson, who served with the Army in Vietnam and volunteers with Veterans for Ammar.

Campa-Najjar has dropped by local American Legion chapters and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts throughout the campaign. His platform includes improving the safety of military training — last year, nearly four times as many military personnel died in training accidents than in combat, according to the Armed Services Committee — and increasing mental health-related resources for veterans.

But in a district with the state’s lowest percentage of registered Democrats, none of that might be enough.

At a VFW post in Escondido, local veterans gathered on a patio for beer and baseball. The group fell silent as a TV in the corner broadcast a news segment on Hunter’s father’s press conference. When the anchor said Campa-Najjar had a security clearance in the Obama White House, the crowd — mainly Hunter supporters — groaned.

“There are a few things I don’t like about [Hunter], but that’s true of all politicians,” said Art Lubben, a 72-year-old Air Force veteran. “And I certainly haven’t heard anything good about that opponent.”

Less than a week earlier, Hunter had shown up at that post to meet constituents. His supporters there said they knew of his legal problems, but many preferred an indicted Republican to a Democrat.

Navy veteran Cyndie August, 58, said she found Hunter “slimy,” observing that he only showed up at the VFW around election time, but she was not willing to vote for a Democrat. August said she will likely write in a third candidate.

After all, she said, she knows the district might get another shot for a Republican member of Congress: If Hunter is reelected and later found guilty and ends up stepping down, there could be a special election.

More on where the candidates stand on key issues.

Twitter: @mayasweedler