Rep. Hunter indicted, but still reelection favorite

By happenstance, the first political campaign I covered was also one of the strangest in California history because one candidate was dead.

Clem Miller was a very popular Democratic congressman who represented about 350 miles of California coastline – from Marin County north to the Oregon border – after winning the seat in 1958.

In 1962, Miller was headed for another landslide win against a token Republican challenger, Del Norte County Supervisor Don Clausen, when a light plane carrying Miller to a campaign appearance in Crescent City crashed east of Eureka, killing him, the pilot, and the pilot’s young son.

The fatal crash occurred just a month before the election and it was too late to take Miller’s name off the ballot. Republicans, sensing an opportunity to pick up a seat, poured money into Clausen’s campaign while Democrats called on voters to vote for Miller’s name and in death, he won re-election.

Scarcely two months later, however, Clausen won a special election to fill the remainder of Miller’s term and went on to serve two decades in Congress.

Democrats had erred by choosing Miller’s field representative, Bill Grader, as their special election candidate. While Grader was politically shrewd, his almost scary personal demeanor repelled voters.

This snippet of political history underscores a somewhat similar situation this year at the other end of the state, in the sprawling 50th Congressional District.

Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter may not be physically dead, but his political career is on life support because last week, he and his wife, who also is his campaign finance manager, were indicted on 60 federal counts of misusing campaign funds for personal expenses.

Hunter, who succeeded his father eight years ago, denies culpability and blames his wife, Margaret, for spending campaign money.

It’s too late to remove Hunter’s name from the November ballot, so it would seem that Democrats have a golden opportunity to pick up one of the two dozen GOP-held seats they must capture to retake control of the House.

However, Democratic leaders, who were well aware that Hunter was being investigated and could face possible indictment, may have erred by not having a viable Democratic candidate waiting in the wings should Hunter be charged.

Instead, with scarcely 17 percent of the primary vote, a very left-wing Democrat, Ammar Campa-Najjar, is his party’s candidate in the 50th CD, which covers rural stretches of San Diego and Riverside counties and is arguably the most conservative, pro-Donald Trump district in all of California.

Thus, even while under indictment, Hunter is favored to prevail against Campa-Najjar in November, creating the scenario of a special election sometime next year should a re-elected Hunter be compelled to resign. And given the very rightward tilt of the 50th CD, if that scenario comes to pass, the GOP would be highly favored to retain the seat.

Names of possible GOP successors are already circulating, including conservative activist and former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who had weighed running against Hunter, and Congressman Darrell Issa, who had decided not to seek re-election this year in the adjacent, less conservative 49th CD rather than face possible defeat.

It’s even possible that what happens to Hunter and the 50th CD could be decisive in determining which party controls the House, should Republicans need the seat to stay in power and Democrats need it to retake power.

That also would be a campaign for the history books.

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