It's hard to be too surprised about the recent indictment of Rep. Duncan Hunter, the San Diego-area Republican accused (along with his wife) of using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses including a trip to Italy, massive bar tabs and video games. OK, it's startling whenever any congressman faces charges, but the federal indictment probably won't shock those who have followed past news reports about a man sometimes mocked as a member of the GOP "Bros Caucus" because of his apparent frat-boy lifestyle.
The 47-page indictment also accuses the couple of filing false campaign-finance records. There's the allegation that his wife, Margaret, spent $152 on cosmetics and told the campaign they were gift-basket items for a charity. Even tackier, the Justice Department alleges that when Rep. Hunter wanted to buy "Hawaii shorts," his wife allegedly told him to buy them at a golf pro shop so they could attribute the expense to balls for wounded warriors. We've long known about the $600 to fly their pet rabbit on a trip—something the campaign attributes to an innocent billing mistake. But there's little mistaking the lifestyle enjoyed by this servant of the people.
The Hunters pleaded not guilty and deny the allegations. Rep. Hunter's statement accuses the Justice Department of waging a political witch hunt designed to harm his re-election chances. He said the campaign made mistakes but they repaid those things.
The scandal still brings to mind the late journalist H.L. Mencken's observation about politicians in general: "These men…are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally describable as public spirit; there is actually no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or street-walkers. Their purpose, first, last and all the time, is to promote their private advantage, and to that end…they exercise all the vast powers that are in their hands."
I'm not as cynical as Mencken, but two elements of Hunter scandal still seem amazing. First, after the indictment was issued Rep. Hunter seemed to have thrown his wife under the bus. Then when journalists started asking questions about Margaret's role in this, Duncan demanded that they leave his wife out of it. That's an unseemly approach, and something that may upset some voters more than the details of the indictment itself.
Here's what the congressman originally told Fox News: "When I went to Iraq in 2003, the first time, I gave her power of attorney, and she handled my finances throughout my entire military career and that continued on when I got into Congress. She was also the campaign manager so whatever she did, that'll be looked at too, I'm sure. But I didn't do it. I didn't spend any money illegally." Then Rep. Hunter recently told the media: "Leave my wife out of it, leave my family out of it. It's me they're after, anyway." That's a decent recovery, but who wouldn't have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the Hunter household after the first quotation?
But probably the most interesting news is that despite this terrible publicity, Duncan Hunter remains the odds-on favorite to retain his congressional seat in November. The latest polls give him an eight-point lead over Democratic challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar. The San Diego Union-Tribune's Joshua Emerson Smith captured the Democrats' problem with admirable understatement: "Campa-Najjar, the son of a Mexican-American mother and a Middle Eastern father, doesn't appear to be an obvious fit for the deeply conservative district. A staunch environmentalist, he's also the grandson of Muhammed Yusuf al-Najjar, the head of the intelligence wing of the Palestinian political party Fatah, whose members planned the murder of Israeli Olympians in 1972. Yusuf al-Najjar was subsequently assassinated by the Israeli government."
The 29 year-old Campa-Najjar notes that his grandfather died 16 years before he was born and has renounced his legacy, which is fair enough. You can't blame someone for his grandfather's past. Campa-Najjar has also built ties with the local Jewish community. But he's still not "an obvious fit" for the pro-Trump district when you look at his progressive policy positions. Of course, this is the problem with our increasingly polarized politics.
As the GOP moves in a nationalistic direction, the Democratic Party moves in a leftist direction. Even if your side's candidate is despicable—and refer back to Mencken, who viewed all politicians that way—the other side's candidate is almost always going to be unacceptable. How many Republican voters there, appalled by the allegations in the indictment, will be comfortable voting for Hunter's alternative?
Unfortunately, California's top-two primary means that only Hunter and Campa-Najjar will be on the November ballot for the 50th congressional district. There are no third-party candidates and no chance to even write in a protest vote. So no one should be surprised when a damaged-goods congressman wins another term in the House of Representatives.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998-2009. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.