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Duncan Hunter's guilty plea will widen an already open race for the 50th District

Jeff McDonald and Morgan Cook, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in News & Features

SAN DIEGO -- With Rep. Duncan Hunter seemingly off the next 50th Congressional District ballot, experts say the Republican Party has boosted its chances of retaining the California seat come November.

The announcement Monday that Hunter intends to change his plea and admit to a campaign-finance violation -- and apparently resign from Congress or suspend his reelection drive -- has wholly recast what already was a heated race.

Hunter, an incumbent Republican who has represented the East San Diego County district since he succeeded his father in 2008, said Monday he plans to plead guilty to one criminal count during a federal court hearing Tuesday.

He and his wife, Margaret Hunter, were indicted in August 2018 on 60 counts of misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations and lying to cover up the crimes.

The Hunters both insisted they were innocent of all charges -- until June, when Margaret Hunter admitted a single count of conspiracy and agreed to testify against her husband. Duncan Hunter spent more than $800,000 in campaign funds on defense attorneys over recent months.

"He just did a big favor to the Republican Party," said Jack Pitney, Claremont McKenna College political science professor. "This means they are very likely to hang onto that seat. Hunter is just about the only candidate who could have lost that seat."

 

Rep. Hunter told television station KUSI, "I think it's important to keep the seat a Republican seat. President Trump right now needs support more than ever for strong national security, border security and good high paying jobs in this country. I think it's really important to keep this seat in the right hands and the right column."

Even before he agreed to plead guilty, Hunter was facing unprecedented competition from well-known Republican challengers to retain his seat.

Former Rep. Darrell Issa, former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio and state Sen. Brian Jones all announced they would run against Hunter, who barely survived his 2018 reelection campaign against Democratic challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar.

Campa-Najjar is once again vying for the now-open seat. He said Hunter's change of plea will improve his chances of winning in the March primary and the November general election.

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