'Race-baiting' and 'disinformation' roil CA contest between indicted GOP Rep. Hunter and Democrat Campa-Najjar as polls tighten

  • Indicted California GOP Rep. Duncan D. Hunter is at risk of losing to Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, who has been rising in polling and raising more money.
  • On Tuesday, the father of the embattled incumbent came out swinging against his son's congressional challenger in a press conference where he called the Democrat a "security risk."
  • The father of the incumbent is ex-Congressman Duncan L. Hunter, a former chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
  • "This is an act of desperation," said Campa-Najjar, a Latino Arab-American who once worked in the White House.
Former GOP California Rep. Duncan L. Hunter speaking during press conference in San Diego on Oct. 16, 2018, where he alleged Democratic congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar's family ties make him a "security risk."
Source: KNSD
Former GOP California Rep. Duncan L. Hunter speaking during press conference in San Diego on Oct. 16, 2018, where he alleged Democratic congressional candidate Ammar Campa-Najjar's family ties make him a "security risk."

Indicted California GOP Rep. Duncan D. Hunter isn't just facing legal problems. He's fighting for his political life in a heated campaign that has seen the Democratic challenger, Ammar Campa-Najjar, soar in polling and come within striking distance of winning one of the state's most conservative districts.

The embattled lawmaker's father, former Congressman Duncan L. Hunter, came out swinging Tuesday against his son's Democratic challenger in a bizarre press conference in San Diego where he called the rival candidate a "security risk." The senior Hunter said Campa-Najjar's family had ties to a terrorist group.

The younger Hunter, who has been campaigning for a sixth term and holds a seat once held by his father, was indicted along with his wife by a federal grand jury in August for allegedly misusing over $250,000 in campaign funds. The incumbent is running neck and neck in polls with Campa-Najjar, a Latino Arab-American who once worked in the White House.

Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a candidate in California's 50th Congressional District, responding to allegations made against him and his family at a press event in San Diego on Oct. 16, 2018.
Source: KNSD
Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a candidate in California's 50th Congressional District, responding to allegations made against him and his family at a press event in San Diego on Oct. 16, 2018.

"Mr. Najjar is a security risk," the elder Hunter charged at a press conference. "As an American congressman, he would have the right to know about American troop movements in the Middle East."

The senior Hunter served in the House from 1981 to 2009 and once chaired the powerful Armed Services Committee. His son also served on the Armed Services Committee but was temporarily removed from the assignment by House Speaker Paul Ryan following the charges of funds misuse.

Campa-Najjar, who worked on President Barack Obama's re-election campaign and in the White House, showed up to hear the senior Hunter's press conference. The Democrat rejected the allegation he was a national security risk and charged Hunter with resorting to "race-baiting" as well as spewing "disinformation."

"This is an act of desperation," Campa-Najjar told reporters. "Daddy had to come out and save him. Daddy is not going to bail him out this time."

The 29-year-old Democrat has been outraising the incumbent for a congressional seat in a district that includes portions of San Diego and Riverside counties. President Donald Trump carried the GOP-leaning district in the 2016 election by a margin of 15 points.

A Los Angeles Times/University of California-Berkeley poll released earlier this month showed Hunter with a slim 2 percent edge on the Democrat, well within the margin of error. Earlier polls showed the incumbent with leads of 9 to 13 percent.

The Hunter campaign didn't respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Earlier, though, the Hunter campaign circulated security risk claims about Campa-Najjar from three retired generals, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Monday. The paper also said the 41-year-old congressman's recent re-election efforts have included focusing "on Campa-Najjar's heritage, including an attack ad with many of the same themes struck by the generals."

Campa-Najjar told reporters he was given a security background check twice by the FBI for his work in the federal government, first for his internship in the White House and later when he was a public affairs officer at the Department of Labor.

"This is a race about Duncan Hunter being indicted by the FBI, versus me, who was cleared by the FBI to work at the White House," said Campa-Najjar.

Campa-Najjar's father is a Palestinian-American Muslim, and when his parents split he was raised by his Catholic mother, Abigail — a Mexican-American. The Democrat moved to Gaza Strip in 1997 when he was 8 years old but returned to the U.S. in 2001.

"I'm as American as they get," said Campa-Najjar, who was born in San Diego County.

Family terror ties in the open

The senior Hunter said Campa-Najjar's grandfather, Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar, had been "director of the Munich massacre." The attack by the Palestinian terror group Black September during the 1972 Summer Olympics resulted in the deaths of a group of Israeli athletes.

To be clear, Campa-Najjar has openly spoken about his grandfather's terror ties before. He called the grandfather's actions of murdering innocent people "heinous and wrong."

Campa-Najjar said he never met his grandfather, who died 16 years before he was born. He also said his grandfather was eventually "brought to justice."

In retribution for the Munich massacre, an Israeli commando team killed his grandfather and grandmother in 1973.

The senior Hunter was asked to respond to allegations that the smearing of the Democrat could be seen as racism.

"This has nothing to do with race," the former congressman said. "This has to do with terrorism."

According to the former congressman, the grandfather also attempted in 1972 to assassinate then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir when she flew to Rome to meet with the pope. The senior Hunter held up photos showing the kind of missiles that the grandfather planned to use and also accused the Democratic candidate's father, Yasser Najjar, of using a "brag board" on the Internet to tout the family's past.

"Mr. Najjar (the candidate) and his father are very close," Hunter said, claiming that the father "advises his son on the campaign." The ex-lawmaker also raised a large photo of the candidate together with his father at one point during the press event.

The elder Hunter claimed Campa-Najjar's father served for two decades as "a senior member" of the Palestine Liberation Organization, a group the ex-congressman described as "America's best-known terror organization."

Campa-Najjar responded by suggesting the Palestinian organization shouldn't be viewed the same way today. For example, he said that the PLO "coordinates" with Israel on security matters involving the West Bank.

Also, the Democrat called the relationship with his father "fairly estranged" and said the photo of them together that the senior Hunter showed at the press conference was taken in 2015 when his father spent 15 days visiting the U.S.

"Hunter's father isn't running for Congress, and neither is mine," said Campa-Najjar. "I'm running for Congress, and people should judge me on my own merits, my own actions, my own record, and Hunter on his."