Duncan Hunter indictment scrambles California election plans

Rep. Duncan HunterDuncan Duane HunterIndicted GOP lawmaker to stay on ballot in New York this fall: report Hoyer lays out government reform blueprint The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — McConnell warns of GOP `knife fight’ to keep Senate control MORE’s (R) indictment has put his traditionally red seat in Southern California in play this fall, further scrambling the GOP’s effort to hang on to its majority.

Democrats had already planned to use the FBI investigation into Hunter’s alleged misuse of campaign funds as a weapon against Duncan in the midterms.

But the indictment, which claims Hunter and his wife misused thousands of dollars in campaign money to pay for lavish vacations and other personal expenses, has given new ammunition to Democrats in their quest to flip Hunter’s seat.

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Immediately following Tuesday’s indictment, the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, shifted his seat from safe to competitive.

“Hunter's race moves from Solid Republican to the Lean Republican column, with the potential to move further,” wrote David Wasserman, Cook’s House editor. “The charges aren't unexpected, but they couldn't come at a worse time for Republicans.”

Meanwhile, Hunter's hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, called on him to resign in a blistering editorial published on Wednesday.

“Hunter badly lost his way, seemingly becoming corrupt to the point of caricature,” the editorial said. “His once-promising political career is now in ruins as a result.”

Hunter, a former Marine who has been in Congress since 2009, remains a favorite to win the military district in San Diego, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE won by 15 points in 2016.

But the 47-page indictment, which includes a number of potentially embarrassing details and comes just more than two months before Election Day, has given Democrats a serious lifeline.

“This went from a race that, although we were looking at it, none of us felt we had a serious shot at, to a race where [the GOP] may have just lost themselves a seat,” said Eric C. Bauman, chairman of the California Democratic Party.

The indictment dovetails with the House Democrats’ push to link the GOP's control of the House to corruption. It’s the second indictment of a sitting House Republican this month, after Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsIndicted GOP lawmaker to stay on ballot in New York this fall: report Live coverage: Cuomo, Nixon face off in high-stakes New York primary Hoyer lays out government reform blueprint MORE (N.Y.) was charged with insider trading several weeks ago.

And it appears there could be more negative headlines coming for Hunter, who has indicated that he will fight Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanCorey Stewart fires aide who helped bring far-right ideas to campaign: report GOP super PAC hits Randy Bryce with ad starring his brother Super PACs spend big in high-stakes midterms MORE’s (R-Wis.) call for him to be removed from his committee assignments.

A House GOP source close to the process told The Hill on Wednesday that Hunter is not voluntarily resigning his committee assignments. This will lead the Republican Steering Committee to meet to recommend his forcible removal.

Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were charged Tuesday with misusing at least $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses and falsifying campaign records.

It claims Hunter routinely dipped into his campaign coffers like a personal bank account, allegedly misusing campaign funds to pay for family vacations, dental work, rounds of golf, birthday gifts, sporting events, school tuition and hefty bar tabs.

In one instance, Hunter bought clothes at a golf course and misrepresented them as golf balls for "the wounded warriors." It also accuses Hunter of using campaign funds to stay at the Liaison Hotel in Washington, D.C., with “individual 14,” who Hunter also allegedly took on a ski trip to Lake Tahoe using campaign dollars.

Hunter has taken a defiant stance since the indictment was released, signaling he has no plans to drop out of the election. 

Hunter, one of Trump's earliest backers on Capitol Hill, claims that he is the victim of a Justice Department “witch hunt” and accused top law enforcement officials of having a “political agenda” — taking a page directly out of the president's playbook.

“The fact is that there is a culture operating within our Justice Department that is politically motivated. We are seeing this with President Trump; we are seeing this with my case,” Hunter said in a lengthy statement on Wednesday issued through his campaign.

“All the while, there has been a constant barrage of misinformation and salacious headlines in our media regarding this matter. I purposely choose to remain silent, not to feed into this witch-hunt and trust the process.”

Even if Hunter pulls out a win, the controversy could force Republicans to pour resources into protecting a normally safe district that they weren’t planning on having to defend — unless the GOP decides to just cut their losses and focus on districts that are facing better odds.

“I think they’re gonna cut and run. Lets face it, they’ve got a lot of seats to protect,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “The list of vulnerable seats is expanding and the GOP is scrambling right now, because they don’t have the resources to cover all these seats coming into play. They’re going to have to make some tough choices.”

In a brief statement, the California Republican Party said Hunter is innocent until proven guilty.

“In our country, individuals are presumed innocent until a jury of their peers convict them,” said California Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte. “The congressman and his wife have a constitutional promise to their day in court and we will not prejudge the outcome.”

Hunter has strong name recognition in the area, which was previously represented by his father.

And Republicans were encouraged that Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old of Hispanic and Arab descent, beat out a retired Navy Seal in the Democratic primary. The GOP viewed Campa-Najjar as an easier candidate to beat in the general election.

Democrats need to flip 23 seats to win back the House this fall. Election observers say that the path to the majority likely runs through California, where a number of traditionally red districts are up for grabs.

“At the very least, this puts the seat in play,” said Bauman. “But at the very best, Duncan Hunter is in big trouble.”