SAN DIEGO — California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, who won re-election while facing federal corruption charges, promised constituents Wednesday it will be “business-as-usual” in his deeply red Southern California district, but some wonder whether that will be possible.
Hunter won by eight percentage points over first-time Democratic candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar in the San Diego-area district that President Trump won by double digits in 2016.
Campa-Najjar, 29, a former Obama White House aide, was largely unknown until the race drew wide attention when Hunter and his wife were indicted.
The race was considered a test of partisanship in the Trump era and whether voters would overlook the taint of suspicion to keep the five-term lawmaker in his seat. Hunter became one of the few candidates in history to be re-elected while indicted.
He has pleaded not guilty and called the indictment a political witch hunt. He vowed Wednesday to continue his fight to rebuild the military, fortify the U.S. border, cut taxes and protect the 2nd Amendment.
“I intend to make it business-as-usual in working with President Trump for the next two years to achieve more success, especially given the challenge of having a Democrat-led House,” Hunter said in a statement.
He is up against mounting challenges unlike any he has faced in his 10 years in office.
He and his wife are due back in court Dec. 3. A grand jury in August handed down a 60-count indictment against the couple alleging they used more than $250,000 in campaign money for personal expenses ranging from tequila shots to an Italy trip to dental work.
Robert Knapp, 59, a Santee Republican who services trucks and buses, said he reluctantly voted for Hunter, but he did not want to see Republicans lose the seat. “Personally, I would have a difficult time focusing,” he said. “Hopefully he has good people around him to help him stay on track.”
Hunter was one of two indicted Republican congressmen running for re-election. Rep. Chris Collins of New York is accused of insider trading. His race was too close to call Wednesday.
Both were early supporters of Trump and called the charges retribution for his election.
Trump, however, did not officially endorse either candidate, though some say he could try to intervene to help the Republicans now that Democrats control the House.
Bill Wells, the conservative mayor of El Cajon, which falls in Hunter’s district, said there’s no doubt the case will be a distraction. “It’s not a positive thing,” he said. “So the faster this gets resolved, the better it will be for the district.”
Wells ran against Hunter after it was announced the congressman was under federal investigation, but he lost in the June primary. He said his candidacy opened the door for other Republicans who were reluctant to go against the Hunter family, a political dynasty in the largely rural and suburban district east of San Diego.
Hunter’s father was elected to the seat in 1980 and held it until his son was elected in 2008.
Wells declined to predict how things will end for Hunter, though he is still entertaining the idea of going for his seat again if the conditions are right.
Former federal prosecutor Jason A. Forge expects the case to go to trial in 2019. Forge, who is now in private practice, said the indictment is full of evidence that he believes shows the prosecution’s case is strong, and he expects a conviction.
“When you read between the lines in the indictment, there are a lot of bread crumbs there,” Forge said.
Hunter’s wife is also facing jail time and could opt to cooperate. Hunter has insinuated his wife, who was his campaign manager, was to blame for the misspending. But Forge said he does not believe she would testify against the father of their three children.
“But who knows, the reality is those kids could wind up with both parents in jail at the same time,” he said.
No law requires lawmakers who are convicted to step down, though most have under pressure. Otherwise they can face expulsion. If the seat is vacated, the governor would call a special election.
Hunter, a 41-year-old retired Marine, has said he is eager to go to trial.
A few lawmakers have been re-elected while indicted and gone on to be exonerated. More have been convicted and later resigned.
In 2014, Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York was re-elected while under indictment and later resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion. After serving more than seven months in prison, he ran again in the June primary and lost.