GOP lawmakers Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Chris Collins (R-NY) made headlines in February 2016 when they became the first sitting members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump.
In an odd bit of cosmic timing, the two Republicans earned matching headlines again this August when they were separately indicted on federal criminal charges.
Now unexpectedly fighting for their seats in safely red districts on opposite coasts with just weeks before Election Day, Hunter and Collins are both borrowing heavily from the President’s playbook. The mantra: never back down, never apologize, and keep it divisive—particularly on matters of race and ethnicity.
Hunter, who is accused of misusing $250,000 in campaign funds for expenses like flying his pet rabbit around the country and taking his family on European vacations, is next due in court on Dec. 3. Collins’ trial for insider trading is not slated to start until February 2020. Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Given the partisan makeup of the two districts at play, it’s perfectly possible that both congressman could win re-election.
Hunter, the California Republican, seems particularly bent on holding on to his seat at all costs. Hunter threw his wife under the bus after the couple was indicted for allegedly misusing campaign funds and attempting to conceal their activity in federal records, saying “whatever she did” will be scrutinized.
Hunter also drew a direct line between his own legal woes and the sprawling special counsel investigation clouding Trump’s presidency, blaming both on Obama administration holdovers in the Justice Department.
Hunter referred to the Justice Department as “the Democrats’ arm of law enforcement,” telling local San Diego station KGTV that “it’s happening with Trump and it’s happening with me.”
Then there’s the Trumpian nativism. Hunter has suggested that his Democratic opponent Ammar Campa-Najjar, an Obama administration staffer of Mexican-Palestinian descent, poses a “national security risk.”
“A Palestinian, Mexican-American Democrat named Ammar Campa-Najjar doesn’t get his support from the people of San Diego,” a Hunter TV ad intoned.
At a campaign event, Hunter himself referred to Campa-Najjar, who is Christian, as a “radical Muslim” who is “trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.”
Hunter has seized on Campa-Najjar’s late grandfather’s role as head of intelligence for Palestinian political party Fatah in the early 1970s. The Times of Israel reported that Muhammad Yousef al-Najjar subsequently became “a senior member” of Black September, the terrorist group which carried out the notorious attack that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
Campa-Najjar has denounced his grandfather’s “heartbreaking” actions and called for peace between Israel and Palestine. Campa-Najjar never met his grandfather, who was killed in a retaliatory Israeli commando raid in Beirut in 1973, 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born. Campa-Najjar was born in California, lived for a time in Gaza as a child, and then returned to California.
The Hunter campaign alleged in campaign materials sent out this week that, if elected, Campa-Najjar might share “classified, secret information” on U.S. military operations with his relatives in the Middle East.
Hunter’s Muslim Brotherhood line of attack is based on a donation Campa-Najjar’s campaign made to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group that is a bogeyman on the far-right
Hunter’s spokesman did not return TPM’s requests for comment. In a Monday phone interview, Campa-Najjar’s communications director, Nick Singer, criticized Hunter’s “bigoted messaging.”
“Ammar passed an FBI background check to work at the White House, and Duncan Hunter was indicted by the FBI,” Singer said. “If Hunter was given a background check for a security clearance today he wouldn’t pass because of the indictment.”
Singer added that Hunter, who was stripped of his assignments on the House Armed Services, Transportation and Education Committees by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), is no longer permitted to view classified information.
“Do voters want a law breaker or a law maker in Congress?” Singer asked. “That’s really our closing argument. He’s had almost 10 years as a congressman to pass meaningful legislation for the district, and instead of running on that, he’s attacking Ammar for his heritage.”
Hunter is currently leading in the polls in California’s 50th District, which went for Trump by 15 points in the 2016 election. But the allegations against Hunter are serious enough that independent election observers like the Cook Political Report have moved the race from a sure bet for the GOP to “lean Republican.”
Cook made the same prediction for Collins’ race in western New York’s solidly red 27th District after his indictment was announced. The area has over 40,000 more Republican than Democratic voters. Almost no public polling has been conducted of the contest, but a Spectrum News/Siena College poll out Tuesday had Collins leading Democrat Nate McMurray by only 46-43 percent.
“I don’t get a poll like that unless a lot of Republicans and a lot of independents are saying, ‘Look, it’s time we put an end to this nonsense,’” McMurray, Grand Island town supervisor, told TPM in a Tuesday phone interview.
Collins’ spokeswoman agreed to take questions via email but did not provide responses to TPM by press time.
The New York Republican, who sat on the board of Australian drug company Innate Immunotherapeutics, was indicted this summer for allegedly providing critical inside information about a failing drug trial to his son, his son’s fiancé, and his son’s father-in-law.
At first, Collins agreed to suspend his reelection campaign, saying it would be in the “best interest of the constituents.”
But he abruptly reversed course in mid-September. Citing the advice of lawyers who said that New York’s complex election laws would make it almost impossible to cleanly strike his name from the ballot, Collins said that “the stakes are too high to allow the radical left to take control of this seat.”
That announcement came as a surprise to local and state GOP officials who had been scrambling to find a replacement candidate—and have offered little support for Collins’ decision. The Republican nominee has sought to make up lost ground by launching a barrage of attack ads and mailers targeting McMurray.
The most audacious ad featured McMurray giving an address in Korean alongside spliced-in photos of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Captions on the screen claim that McMurray “worked to send jobs to China and Korea.”
Fact checks revealed that McMurray, a fluent Korean speaker whose wife is a naturalized citizen from South Korea, was actually talking about bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula in the clip.
Facebook/Nate McMurray for Congress: McMurray and his son
The Democratic nominee—and others in the party, including Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA)—denounced the ad as “xenophobic” and “bigoted.”
McMurray told TPM that he was watching TV with his son when the ad came on, and they “both felt pain when we saw it.”
“How would you feel if you’re a kid of Asian heritage and you watched a campaign video where it clearly made even speaking a foreign language seem somehow wrong?” McMurray asked. “They’re making people feel unwanted.”
Collins’ spokeswoman Natalie Baldassare has said such criticisms are part of “Nancy Pelosi’s playbook—label everything you don’t like as racist or bigoted.”
Arguing for his re-election in radio interviews last week, Collins repeatedly offered his “influence” with the Trump administration as the best reason to support him.
“I’m going to work to protect this seat for Donald Trump, to make sure he’s got a Congress to work with him and not against him,” Collins said on location station WBEN. “And that’s the difference between my opponent Nate McMurray and myself. Everyone knows I’m President Trump’s strongest supporter in Washington.”
The President has not exactly gone out of his way to stand behind his two earliest backers on Capitol Hill.
After the indictment, Trump took (factually incorrect) swipes at both “long running, Obama era investigations of two very popular Republican Congressmen” and at the “Jeff Sessions Justice Department” for bringing the charges just before the midterms.
If Hunter or Collins does win in November despite indictment, they won’t be the first Republican congressmen to do so. Michael Grimm won his Staten Island district in 2014 while fighting fraud and tax evasion charges.
He subsequently pleaded guilty to tax fraud, and stepped down from Congress—a week before he was sworn in.