Rep. Duncan Hunter, already staring down an FBI investigation, is running into serious turbulence for reelection.
Sensing that the five-term congressman is mortally wounded by a federal investigation into alleged misuse of campaign money and a recent POLITICO report about his freewheeling Washington lifestyle, Republicans in Hunter’s San Diego-area district are lining up to challenge him.
Some of his expected foes are formidable.
Bill Wells, the conservative mayor of El Cajon, which has a population of roughly 100,000, jumped in last week to challenge Hunter for the seat. Carl DeMaio, a former San Diego City Council member turned radio talk show host, said he was also considering a bid and would decide within days.
That’s in addition to Shamroze “Shamus” Sayed, a 40-year-old businessman who's banking on Hunter’s troubles giving him a shot. Two other declared candidates dropped out, one to support another contender and the other to run in a neighboring district.
Hunter “has violated the public’s trust, and that’s why we need a choice and we need a change in that seat — and that goes beyond the legal issue; it’s a character issue,” said San Diego County Board of Supervisors member Dianne Jacob, a prominent Republican in the district who has endorsed Wells. “My sense, and in talking to other Republicans, is that people think enough is enough. They’re ready for a change, and there’s just too many issues, too many problems, that have come to the forefront" about Duncan.
Hunter’s challengers could be hobbled by California’s so-called jungle primary system, in which the top two candidates from either party proceed to the general election. That means a crowded primary would almost certainly help the well-known Hunter, whose father represented the district for decades before him.
At the same time, several Democratic challengers have outraised Hunter and enjoy a fundraising edge on the recently declared GOP hopefuls. The primary is on June 5, giving Republicans ample time to raise money.
Some Republicans from the district are hoping Hunter will drop out of the race. California's filing deadline is March 9.
“There is no question that right now there is a dark cloud hanging over the district,” said Poway Mayor Steve Vaus. “It would be fair to say there have been a lot of backroom discussions. This has been, from a conservative standpoint, a safe district for a long time. We don’t want to see anything jeopardize that, so what we read and what we hear, it’s troubling.”
Hunter has said he intends to fight for his seat. A San Diego grand jury has been hearing testimony from his former staffers and subpoenaed his family members to determine whether hundreds of thousands of dollars from Hunter’s campaign account were spent improperly on his family and friends.
The inquiry has also touched on Hunter's relationships with several women in Washington, including one who worked as an intern in his office. Hunter is married.
The congressman has also developed a reputation for heavy drinking, including on the job.
While Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has not asked Hunter to retire, some House Republicans who know Hunter well have urged GOP leaders to push him out, pointing to his recent dismal fundraising numbers as one of many reasons to find a new candidate.
In a sign of further diminishing support from party leadership in Washington, one Republican operative in the state said the National Republican Congressional Committee has signaled to consultants that they would not be punished by the national party for working for Hunter's GOP opponents.
Hunter has denied wrongdoing in the FBI probe, pointing to his wife, who managed his campaign and had the campaign credit card.
"There was wrong campaign spending; it was not done by me," Hunter told a local TV station last week. "I have trust in the justice system — despite what’s going on with Donald Trump and [special counsel Robert] Mueller and anti-Republican … [pro-]Democratic forces in the Department of Justice."
Hunter’s name remains a powerful force in his district, and because of the rightward tilt of the district, some Republican consultants in California believe he has a plausible path to reelection.
Hunter’s denials of wrongdoing have been enough to retain some local support. The San Diego County Republican Party endorsed Hunter last fall and intends to continue that support — even as some of its members privately fret about the fate of their candidate.
The county GOP will "forcefully make that case [for Hunter] to voters in the 50th District," Tony Krvaric, the party chairman, said in a text message.
Not everyone is so confident. Two weeks ago, on the day POLTICO reported on the latest turn in FBI investigation of Hunter, Wells said his phone and email lit up with people encouraging him to run. Since he declared last week, he said, donations have been flowing in: "We are scrambling to keep up."
Vous said he hopes Wells jumping in will “stop the stampede” of Republicans trying to take on Hunter and allow the party to unify behind one Hunter alternative. That’s already happened to some extent: Former Hunter challenger Andrew Zelt, a San Diego County sheriff's deputy, left the race last week and called Wells, who represents one of the largest cities in the district, to offer his support.
Another possible candidate is DeMaio, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) in 2014. Just days before the election, a former DeMaio staffer accused DeMaio of sexual harassment and intimidation. DeMaio lost the seat by a few points — even though the staffer later told the FBI he fabricated the story that triggered the bureau's investigation.
Still, the controversy could resurface if DeMaio, a popular radio host, jumps in. Wells' supporters also noted that DeMaio doesn’t live in the district, which could prove problematic for him despite his name recognition.
David Siders contributed to this report.