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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.

"We are all ready to move past this dark cloud of scandal," Campa-Najjar said by telephone. "I look forward to restoring some integrity and dignity to this district."

Issa, who represented the neighboring 49th District over 18 years before deciding not to seek reelection last year, said Hunter faced a difficult decision between defending himself in court and protecting his family from testimony that he cheated on his wife -- and paid for affairs with donor funds.

"The reality is Duncan made a mistake," Issa said by phone. "Reaching for the campaign credit card in what clearly is a personal expense is inappropriate. It was certainly bad judgment and not reimbursing it much earlier was a mistake."

Issa said voters should remember there were "two Duncan Hunters" -- one who joined the Marines after the Sept. 11 attacks and defended veterans in Congress for a decade-plus, and one who veered from his marriage and made improper campaign spending decisions.

DeMaio said Hunter did the right thing.

"While this must have been a difficult decision for him, Congressman Hunter's decision to plead guilty is the right one for his family and his constituents and shows that no one should be above the law -- especially members of Congress," DeMaio said by phone.

While Hunter's main political rivals did their best not to focus on how the guilty plea might improve their election chances, political experts were not so reluctant.

"This gives the Republicans a much stronger chance of holding on to a critical seat," University of California, San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser said. "They lose the advantage of incumbency and name-brand, but getting away from the scandal and the soap opera this has become will allow the party to focus on issues that are popular to voters in this district."


San Diego State political science professor Brian Adams also said Republicans are much more likely to retain the seat with Hunter off the ballot.

"I think the Democrats' best chance was a Campa-Najjar/Hunter matchup," he said. "I think DeMaio, Issa or Jones all match up well against Campa-Najjar."

Jenny Montgomery, an executive committee member of the community group Indivisible Fallbrook that worked to defeat Hunter last year, said she was grateful to hear he would no longer represent the 50th district.

"Indivisible Fallbrook is very happy and we hope that he will finally be held accountable," she said. "As constituents, we have been asking for town halls, we have called him for years, and he has been nonresponsive.

"He has been outwardly disrespectful to his constituents," she added. "He is not the right person to be representing this district."

Political consultant John Dadian said he thinks state Sen. Jones stands to benefit the most from Hunter exiting the 50th District race.

"One big deficiency is he doesn't have money and probably can't raise a lot," said Dadian, who said he is not consulting in the upcoming race. "But he is seen as the local guy. People call him Mr. East County. I think it benefits him a great deal."

Jones did not immediately return calls seeking a reaction to the Hunter announcement.

Dadian also pointed out that the official filing deadline for the campaign is Friday -- and will be extended five days if the incumbent is not a candidate.

"Last time I looked there were 12 people who took papers out," he said.

Some Democrats issued statements in response to Hunter's decision.

"I hope this puts Duncan and his family on a path toward putting this difficult chapter behind them," Rep. Scott Peters of San Diego said. "This will be toughest for his kids and we should all be hoping for the best for them."

Hunter is due to enter his plea in U.S. District Court at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

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