Duncan Hunter's Indictment Is a Threat to the Republican House Majority

The California lawmaker and early Trump supporter was headed to victory in November. But the new federal charges against him could invigorate Democrats.

Representative Duncan Hunter (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Updated on August 21 at 4:02 p.m. ET

The congressman and his wife looted his campaign account for tens of thousands of dollars to take their family on vacations to Italy, Lake Tahoe, and Las Vegas. He illegally used funds raised from donors to buy video games and then tried to cover it up by claiming he was the victim of credit-card fraud. When the congressman wanted to buy himself Hawaiian shorts, his wife suggested he get them at a local pro shop so they could falsely label the purchase as golf “balls for the wounded warriors.”

These are but a few of the many allegations of fraud leveled against Republican Representative Duncan Hunter and his wife, Margaret, in a 47-page federal indictment brought against them on Tuesday evening by prosecutors in Southern California. For years, the couple was stretched for cash—they overdrew their personal accounts some 1,100 times over eight years—and so they essentially lived off Hunter’s campaign coffer, the government charged. All told, the Hunters allegedly stole more than $250,000 in campaign funds to use for personal expenses and masked their spending by filing false financial records with the Federal Election Commission.

It was the second indictment of a sitting Republican congressman in the past three weeks and the latest blow in an onslaught of recent damaging developments for the GOP in the run-up to the November midterm elections. It’s not just that both lawmakers were early and enthusiastic supporters of President Trump; Hunter and Representative Chris Collins of New York, who was indicted earlier this month, were the first two House members to publicly endorse the president’s 2016 campaign. But Hunter’s indictment in particular presents an unexpected threat to the House GOP majority, putting what is usually a safe Republican seat in play just two and a half months before the election.

Coming when it did on Tuesday, the Hunter indictment added insult to the injury of an already perilous day that saw Trump’s personal attorney plead guilty and his former campaign chairman convicted for an array of campaign-finance and tax-related felonies. While the legal woes of Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort pose a long-term threat to the president’s standing, the charges against Hunter could have more immediate political repercussions for his party. After Collins was arrested and charged with insider trading, he quit his reelection campaign. That allowed Republicans to replace him with a candidate who should be favored in an upstate district that strongly supported the president two years ago.

Hunter, however, remains on the ballot, and while his district outside San Diego has been a Republican stronghold, the party could have more trouble than usual there. Because of California’s election rules, it is nearly impossible for him to be taken off the ballot unless he dies or asks a judge to remove his name. The state’s top-two primary forecloses the possibility of a write-in or independent candidate, and in a nonpartisan system, the Republican Party has no power to replace him on the ballot.

That means the GOP is stuck with an incumbent under the cloud of an indictment, which in a mad-dash scramble for the House majority could cost Republicans a seat they can’t afford to relinquish. Election forecasters have already given Democrats an edge in their fight to pick up the 23 seats they need to retake the House, and Hunter’s seat in California’s 50th district wasn’t previously on the list of competitive races. But the indictment is already inspiring Democrats to take a fresh look at the district. Though it had been known for months that Hunter was under investigation, the timing of the indictment seemed to catch both parties by surprise.

“From a landscape perspective, this is obviously tough terrain for Democrats. It’s a district Trump won by 15 points,” noted Jeb Fain, a spokesman for House Majority PAC, the main Democratic super PAC. But “this indictment has all the appearances of a game-changer,” he told me. “The details are damning. It’s the kind of story that has legs, and it’s safe to say it’s caught our attention.”

The super PAC already had $1.2 million in television time reserved in San Diego for the home stretch of the campaign. It planned to use that for ads in the nearby 49th district, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and had already been a top Democratic target due to the retirement of the incumbent GOP Representative Darrell Issa. But some of that money could be routed to the 50th district, where the Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a first-time candidate and former staffer in the Obama White House, was previously mired in an uphill battle against Hunter.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—the party’s official campaign arm—is taking a more cautious approach to its chances in Hunter’s district. In a statement reacting to the indictment, the Committee’s spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly, sought to place the news in the context of the Democrats’ national message against GOP corruption.

“Hunter’s misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses and the filing of false campaign finance records is emblematic of the corruption and twisted priorities of today’s Republican Party,” Kelly said. “While everyday families are struggling to afford healthcare, prescription drugs and property taxes, their Republican representatives in Congress are focused solely on enriching themselves and their donors.”

But Kelly did not mention Campa-Najjar in her statement, nor did she make any commitments that the DCCC would spend money to help win the seat. The statement noted only that the 50th district had been on the DCCC’s “target list” since the beginning of the 2018 election cycle.

Privately, Democrats said they would continue to assess the race but noted that the Hunter family name could be tough to beat, even with the indictment. Hunter’s father, also named Duncan Hunter, represented the area in Congress for 28 years before his son replaced him in 2009. The elder Hunter served as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and ran for president in 2008. Both Hunters served extensive tours of duty in the military—the father in Vietnam, the son in Iraq and Afghanistan. The younger Hunter, however, gained most of his national attention in 2016 for smoking an e-cigarette during a House hearing on vaping and for his endorsement of Trump.

What is less clear is how closely Republicans plan to stand by Hunter. Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement calling the charges “deeply serious” and said he would immediately remove Hunter from the three committees—which include Armed Services—on which he serves. (Politico reported that Hunter was fighting the move, but House Republicans can vote to strip him of his assignments without his consent.) A spokesman for Hunter did not respond to a request for comment, but the congressman told a local TV station that indictment stemmed from a “political agenda” advanced by law enforcement. “This is the new Department of Justice. This is the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement,” he told KGTV. “It’s happening with Trump, and it’s happening with me, and we’re going to fight through it and win when the people get to vote in November.” The National Republican Congressional Committee has not said whether it will withdraw its support for his reelection, and representatives for the organization did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

It’s not an easy choice: defend an incumbent accused of stealing from campaign donors to support his family’s lavish lifestyle, or cut him loose and risk handing Democrats an easier path to power. But the bigger problem for the GOP is that in a season of presidential scandal, the decision over whether to ditch one more embattled rank-and-file member of the House amounts to the least of its political worries.