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In one of California’s reddest districts, Republican loyalty is tested by an indictment

Since 1980, Nancy Clancey, along with the majority of Southern California’s 50th congressional district, has voted in every election to send a representative named Hunter to Congress.

Former Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr. held the seat for 27 years, before retiring in 2009 to make way for his son, now a five-term GOP incumbent, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. Together, they built a political dynasty in the deep-red district, which spans suburban and rural communities east of San Diego. President Donald Trump won the district by 15 points in 2016, but Hunter carried it by 27, a sign at the time of the family’s enduring popularity.

Through the 2016 election, “I was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican,” said Clancey, 87, a San Marcos resident. But this year, an unexpected political scandal has forced Clancey and other Republican voters in the district to reassess their allegiance.

In August, Hunter and his wife were charged with 60 counts of fraud. Federal prosecutors claim the couple spent $250,000 in campaign funds over the years on personal expenses, including lavish vacations, dinners and an airplane seat for their pet rabbit.

Prosecutors allege that Hunter, a former Marine who served in the Iraq War, “knowingly conspired” with his wife to pass off the transactions as contributions to wounded warriors, and that he also spent campaign funds on five extramarital affairs. The couple has pleaded not guilty.

Hunter later said his wife was responsible for the transactions.

Clancey said that was her breaking point. After deciding to part ways with Hunter and the Republican Party, Clancey registered as an independent and now says she’s prepared to do the unthinkable: vote for a Democrat.

Hunter’s scandal has opened a door for his Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old Palestinian-Mexican-American and former Obama administration Labor Department employee. Campa-Najjar is now racing to win over disaffected suburban Republican voters, especially women, ahead of the midterm elections next month.

Suburban seats like Hunter’s are critical for Democrats aiming to retake the U.S. House this cycle; the party needs to gain 23 seats to take control.

“I’m focusing on issues that affect every voter here,” Campa-Najjar said in a phone interview. “People I talk to say they’re seeing too many parallels in Duncan Hunter with the national narrative of corruption in Washington.”

Campa-Najjar had out-fundraised Hunter through September but still trails by 13 points according to a recent poll, others suggest the race is closer.

The small business owner has positioned himself as a progressive on issues like health care and equal pay, while also fighting his own party on California’s gas tax and promising to work with Trump on job creation and infrastructure.

The message appears to be resonating with voters who are “reevaluating how they’ve voted in the past and may well put country over party,” he said.

He added: “Female swing voters, even Republican men, we’re seeing more support than we expected.”

Clancey said she was inspired to vote for Campa-Najjar after meeting him at a campaign event this month.

“He has such likability, great humility and youthful energy,” she said. At the event, “people brought up everything from immigration to gun control. He spoke of his willingness to listen and speak with the other side. I think that’s so important.”

Still, it’s unclear if Campa-Najjar can win over enough Republicans in the final weeks of the race. Some GOP voters said they were willing to support Hunter despite his indictment.

“He’s human,” said Delores Chavez, who owns an accounting business in Valley Center. “Should there be consequences? Certainly. But make it a fine and let’s move on.”

Chavez said she was more worried about sending a Democrat to Congress.

“Hunter’s opponent will come to Congress with a view that isn’t necessarily in the best interest of our district or our country,” she said.

Hunter has run political ads, and issued veteran endorsements and remarks that falsely claim Campa-Najjar changed his name to “hide his family’s ties to terrorism” and is now a “security risk” who wants to “infiltrate” Congress like other “radical Muslims.”

Campa-Najjar was born in San Diego as Ammar Yasser Najjar. His mother, Abigail Campa, is a Mexican Catholic who raised him and his younger brother on her own, after their father, a Palestinian Muslim who joined the Palestinian Authority, left the family. Campa-Najjar said he later went by Ammar Joseph Campa-Najjar and legally changed his name this summer.

Campa-Najjar’s grandfather, who died 16 years before he was born, was a member of Black September, a Palestinian terror group that took Israeli athletes hostage at the 1972 Olympic games in Munich, where 11 were killed.

Campa-Najjar has disavowed his grandfather’s actions, and called Hunter’s ad “racist and ignorant.”

He argued that Hunter’s ads have turned off many voters in the district, which has growing Middle Eastern and Hispanic populations.

The race has also exposed divides among veterans, another key voting bloc in the district. Veterans make up 10 percent of eligible voters there and have overwhelmingly supported Hunter in the past. This time, some are pushing back.

“Where are that guy’s values?” said Shawn VanDiver, a former Navy officer and co-chair of the group Veterans for Ammar.

“That Hunter’s willing to go this negative and just flat out lie shows how scared he is of Ammar. He’s never really had to fight to get elected,” VanDiver said.

Mike Harrison, a spokesperson for Hunter, said the campaign has “highlighted facts which are undisputed” and “raise national security concerns that are completely warranted.”

“I agree with those ads and I share those concerns about jeopardizing our security,” Chavez said, adding that her son and daughter-in-law are both in the military. “This young man has been indoctrinated into that kind of lifestyle. He comes from a family of terrorism. He comes from a family that massacred American citizens.”

When pressed that Campa-Najjar never met his grandfather, Chavez replied, “And Duncan Hunter’s father was a great patriot and statesman. So that’s the contrast.”

Under California law, Hunter’s name cannot be removed from the ballot nor can another candidate be written in at this point in the election.

If Hunter is convicted after being re-elected and leaves Congress, a special election would be held to fill his seat. That’s a risk San Diego Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric said the party was willing to take.

“We just had a national debate about whether someone is guilty until proven innocent, and what can happen when we don’t give people the presumption of the doubt,” said Krvaric said, referring to Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation battle.

Krvaric dismissed the likelihood of a Democratic wave in November as “fake news.” “I don’t see any big Democratic upswell coming. We’re not worried.”

Clancey, the longtime Hunter supporter now backing Campa-Najjar, said the GOP should be concerned.

“I do believe Ammar’s going to win. I would be surprised if he doesn’t.”

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