Weakening the Hunter Dynasty: California 50th’s Midterm Election
Iffah Kitchlew is a freshman majoring in journalism. She is the recipient of the NU-Q “Best Research and Analysis: Social Science, Media and Research” award. Once she graduates, she hopes to gain experience within journalism and pursue a master’s degree in political science or writing.
What is your research topic, in a nutshell?
My research topic is an examination of the results of California 50th’s Congressional Election race that took place in 2018, in terms of the common political strategies politicians use to get elected and the dynastic politics that played out within this race.
How did you come to your research topic?
Through coursework and research for “American Government and Politics” at Northwestern University in Qatar in Fall 2018.
Where do you see the future direction of this work leading?
Future research on this topic could include a continued examination of California 50th’s district politics and the 2020 midterm election, paying attention to how political strategies may change and whether the district does turn blue.
This paper analyzes the outcome of California 50th’s House race in the United States’s midterm election held in 2018. Incumbent Republican Duncan Hunter Jr., indicted for misusing campaign funds in August of 2018, defeated Democrat challenger Ammar Campa-Najjar in this competitive race. This year, due to Hunter’s indictment and the efforts of his opponent, the political dynasty Hunter and his father created was in danger of coming to an end. Despite this, Hunter managed to narrowly win this seat once again. This paper seeks to outline the three reasons why Hunter was able to defeat Campa-Najjar: (1) the incumbency advantage Hunter held over Campa-Najjar, (2) the backlash movement Hunter created using racially motivated Trumpian rhetoric during his campaign, and (3) the failure of the Republican party and Republican voters to responsibly hold Hunter accountable for the allegations against him, due to the influence of ideological collusion and partisanship. Furthermore, the paper will examine the significance of this election’s results on American politics and America’s democratic system.
Weakening the Hunter Dynasty: California 50th’s Midterm Election
This year’s California’s 50th Congressional District election once again swung red with Duncan Hunter Jr. winning 51.8 percent of the vote (The New York Times, 2018). Compared to his past victories, this was a narrow win for Hunter. In 2016, he won by 27 percentage points (The New York Times, 2017) and in 2014 by 42.4 percentage points (The New York Times, 2014). This year, he won by a margin of just 3.6 percent (The New York Times, 2018). This means that a percentage of voters did switch from Democrat to Republican in this election, voting instead for Ammar Campa-Najjar, Hunter’s Democratic opponent. In this paper, I will attribute Hunter’s narrow victory for the following reasons: the advantages he held as an incumbent; the racially charged Trumpian rhetoric he used under a backlash movement against his opponent; the failure of both Republican party members and voters to appropriately address the charges of corruption against Hunter, influenced greatly by ideological collusion and partisanship.
The controversy surrounding Hunter during the midterms this year was a major reason why this race was relatively more difficult for him to win. Hunter had been under federal inquiry and investigation for more than five years for misusing campaign funds (Bade & Bresnahan, 2018). He was finally indicted on the August 21, 2018 for filing false campaign finance records and misusing $250,000 of campaign funds for personal expenses (Stolberg, 2018). The indictment weakened this incumbent candidate’s chances of winning, catapulting Campa-Najjar into the spotlight (Nagourney, 2018). However, in a Republican-leaning district (Silver, 2018) that heavily supported (The Washington Post, 2016) and continues to support Donald Trump (Mai-Duc, 2018), it was difficult for an otherwise unknown Palestinian and Hispanic, largely progressive candidate to win. Since Hunter was never convicted of the charges of corruption against him, it was easy for voters to disregard the main reason why Campa-Najjar was seen to have a chance at winning in the first place: Hunter’s indictment. Hunter, enjoying the perks of being a long-time incumbent and belonging to a political dynasty, used Trumpian rhetoric and a racially motivated backlash strategy to gain votes in a predominantly white, conservative, border district. The Republican party and Republican voters, reluctant to cross party lines to support a Democrat and too afraid to lose a seat in the House, stood by Hunter and his corruption as he claimed victory in this election.
The Incumbency Advantage Hunter Held
Name recognition, familial clout within politics, credit claiming in terms of congressional policies, and the ability to maintain his usual voter base were all advantages Hunter enjoyed as an incumbent. Hunter, due to his five-term incumbency (Panzar, 2018), held the upper hand in this race from the beginning. His father, Duncan Hunter Sr., was a congressman from 1981 to 2009 (Garcia, 2018), retiring only to pass his seat down to his son (Bade, 2018). This political dynasty meant that the Hunter name was well recognized amongst voters (Woodyard, 2018). Voters were more likely to trust Hunter because he and his father had been their congressmen for so long––together they had 40 years of experience in politics. As compared to Campa-Najjar, a completely new challenger with little to no political experience, Hunter was the more well-known candidate. This “name recognition” (CUSDI, 2018), ensuring that voters knew who Hunter was, allowed him to get away with a few strategies.
After his indictment, Hunter rarely publicly campaigned for himself. Although Hunter did initially release statements trying to explain himself, blaming his wife for any corruption charges, this severely backfired and put him in a more difficult position than before (Adams, 2018). Therefore, he chose to go underground for the rest of the campaigning period (Egger, 2018). His social media was much less active than Campa-Najjar’s, with 3,319 followers on Facebook (Hunter, 2018) as compared to Campa Najjar’s 29,818 followers (Campa-Najjar, 2018). Hunter’s twitter account was also launched much later on into the campaign, on October 23 (Hunter, 2018). Avoiding “going public” (Iyengar, 2016, pp. 194-199) by generally remaining silent during the time before the election and being absent at debates allowed Hunter to evade the subject of his indictment entirely. Distancing himself from taking a controversial position (Mayhew, 2004, pp. 61-73) on this issue, Hunter hoped that voters would associate him with his previous reputation rather than his new image. In this way, Hunter was able to take advantage of his incumbency by relying on his image from elections prior to this and managed to ignore the scandal surrounding him.
Instead of campaigning himself, Hunter got his father to campaign for him (Smolens, 2018). If Hunter Sr., a beloved ex-congressman, was the face of Hunter’s campaign, voters would be more likely to trust the Hunter campaign as a whole. His father’s statements supporting him, backed by his 14-term run in Congress (Britannica, 2018), helped Hunter maintain the votes he had always gotten in this district. His father’s status as a party elite also garnered Hunter support and funding from the Republican party, especially in the primary, over his Republican opponent, Bill Wells (Bade, 2018). The younger Hunter was able to benefit off of his father’s many contacts, some Republicans refusing to make a statement on Hunter’s indictment because of the status of his father (Bade, 2018). Some voters often conflated the two as well (Bade, 2018). Since his father was well respected amongst voters, it was easier for Hunter to be seen in a better light. Campa-Najjar’s name, on the other hand, did not have a political history to it, nor did he have the same contacts as Hunter. As a comparatively obscure challenger (Grim & Jilani, 2018), Campa-Najjar was unable to enjoy the perks of being part of a political dynasty like Hunter could.
Hunter’s own extensive political career allowed him to claim credit for many policies, something Campa-Najjar could not do because he was relatively new to politics. In order to increase their chances of reelection, incumbents often use certain strategies concerned with relating their past political experience to gain votes (Mayhew, 2004 pp. 49-73). One of these strategies is taking credit for certain political actions, opinions, or policies to appear as a more experienced candidate (Mayhew, 2004, pp. 52-61). While Campa-Najjar may have worked under the Obama Administration beginning from 2012 (Campa Campaign, 2018), Hunter had been a congressman since 2008. Therefore, not only did he have more years in office but he also had more to attribute himself with in terms of being a representative in Congress. Hunter’s website outlined a number of bills he claimed to have drafted or introduced, such as the Maritime Safety Act of 2018 (Hunter for Congress, 2018). Since immigration has remained an issue of great importance in Trump’s presidential term (Yglesias, 2018), Hunter made sure to openly talk about legislation regarding immigration. His website brought back the Unlawful Border Entry Prevention Act, which Hunter introduced in 2011 but has not been passed yet (Hunter, 2018). Also, he strongly supported the use of E-Verify at places of employment and spoke against and predicted the failure of the immigration bill for the DACA program in order to propagate the use of E-Verify (Fox News Insider, 2018). Just prior to Trump’s immigration speech about the “migrant caravan,” Hunter even released a proposal calling for the use of troops at the border (FOX 5, 2018). Openly attributing these political moves to himself, flaunting his position as an experienced congressman by repeatedly mentioning bills he drafted or introduced, and revealing new proposals just days before the election are all tactics Hunter was able to use because he was an incumbent. This in turn allowed him to reassure voters of his familiarity with politics, painting himself out to be a more trustworthy candidate. This put Campa-Najjar at a disadvantage because he had no policies to his name due to his lack of political experience as a challenger.
As an incumbent, Hunter also had very little incentive to mobilize new voters. This was where Hunter’s underground strategy became particularly important. California 50th Congressional District voter turnout has remained relatively high around every year for the midterms, with registered voter turnout in 2014 at 40.13 percent for Riverside county and 44.76 percent for San Diego county (California Secretary of State, 2016). This year’s voter turnout for each county was even higher, according to a 15-day report, with 67.4 percent for San Diego county and 62.8 percent for Riverside county (California Secretary of State, 2018). Ever since Hunter was assigned to this district, he has won each congressional election. Therefore, if the voter turnout was to remain the same, i.e. the people who always vote for Hunter remain the majority in the election, then Hunter would win in 2018 too. According to Stephen Rosenstone and John Hansen in Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America (2002, pp. 25-37), politicians’ strategies within elections are geared towards mobilizing new voters in order to gain votes. However, Shanto Iyengar in Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide (2016, p. 294) stated that politicians tend to focus only on groups that are likely to vote for them. Following this principle, Hunter, aware of the fact that his old voters would probably vote for him again, rather than trying to campaign strongly to new groups, focused on an underground strategy. He campaigned just enough to reassure his usual target demographic of his competence. This can be seen in the little campaigning he did do during the days before the election.
Hunter did not attend many public events, but the ones he did included a meeting with Intermountain Republican Women Federated and another one with Ladies of Escondido, as well as a dove season opening day celebration in Imperial Valley (Hunter, 2018). These were clearly strategic moves: women form the highest percentage of the total population in Hunter’s district (US Census Bureau, 2017) and, thus, meetings with them would increase the chances of their continued support, strengthening Hunter’s chances of winning; Imperial Valley is a majority white, male county (US Census Bureau, 2017) and Hunter’s strongest supporters in the district are white, male voters (Survey USA, 2018). Hunter focused on mobilizing his own voter base, i.e. the white, conservative voters to maintain his stronghold in the district. It is possible that because the district has a white, conservative majority (US Census Bureau, 2017), and since Hunter worked on this specific stratum, he was able to win. Campa-Najjar, on the other hand, tried to work on mobilizing the youth and minority group voters (KPBS, 2018). Even if Campa-Najjar succeeded at this, Hunter’s own usual voter base was in the majority, as it always has been.
However, Campa-Najjar’s own campaigning efforts did not allow Hunter to depend completely on his advantages as an incumbent. He managed to outfund Hunter, raising $4,006,983 compared to Hunter’s $1,169,496 (CFC, 2018). Campa-Najjar received endorsements from prominent members of the Democratic party and party elites, such as Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Riotta, 2018). His slogan––Country Over Party (Campa Campain, 2018)––helped him appear as a more compromising candidate, appealing to voters on the fence about Hunter. His on-ground strategy meant that he attended events and debates throughout his campaign, unlike Hunter (Abcarian, 2018). Moreover, Campa-Najjar capitalized on the fact that one of the organizations Hunter defrauded was a Veteran-related one (Dyer, 2018). Hunter’s image as a military man was not only hurt by this but it also helped Campa-Najjar direct his campaign towards veterans and the pro-military voter base in the district. Veterans for Ammar, a social group campaigning for Campa-Najjar, was created as a result of this strategy (VeteransForAmmarCA50, 2018). The media coverage Campa-Najjar received as a result of Hunter’s indictment was enough to worry Hunter about his position in the race. This is why, while it may have appeared as if Hunter had many advantages due to his incumbency, he was still forced to use other methods to gain popularity in order to counter Campa-Najjar’s relentless campaigning techniques.
Trumpian Tactics under a Racially Motivated Backlash
Hunter used Trumpian rhetoric, made racially charged statements and instituted a backlash strategy to appeal to voters in this solid red district. Trump was particularly popular within California 50th. In 2016, he won here by 15 percentage points (The Washington Post, 2018). According to a Monmouth University poll (2018) conducted near the midterms, the district still had a high Trump approval rating. This is why it would have benefitted any candidate running in this race to keep their statements in line with the president’s. Hunter was one of the first politicians to endorse Trump in 2016 (Gass, 2016). He had also been strikingly similar to Trump in his actions. His claims were often contradictory: denying things he had been recorded saying––he denied implying Campa-Najjar was a radical Muslim in one of his speeches (Sweedler, 2018). Hunter was ready to blame his family for the indictment rather than taking the blame himself. He pushed his wife under the bus, insisting that because she handled his finances and was his campaign manager, she should be the one investigated instead (Baranauckas, 2018). To distract people from the investigation itself, Hunter called it a hypocritical “witch hunt” and “deep state” conspiracy, especially in light of the Hillary Clinton email scandal (Cillizza, 2018). He declared that the Department of Justice was carrying out a politically motivated scheme against him (Rizzo, 2018). The Republican’s agenda during the political climate after 2016 was to dismiss attacks directed towards them as “fake news” (Handley, 2018) and liberal “mob” agendas (Viser & Costa, 2018). Trump deeming the media as unreliable and calling the judicial system out for being wrong when it came to cases like Hunter’s (Stimson, 2018) gave Hunter room to deny the allegations against him. Republican voters in the district, then, were less likely to believe these allegations too (Nagourney, 2018). In this way, like Trump, Hunter was able to discredit statements made by the media and the Justice Department, portraying himself as a victim. Considering the fact that this district’s voters approved highly of Trump, they were likely to believe Hunter when he used this strategy.
Apart from this, Hunter’s tactics and statements––closely associated with race and ethnicity–––worked to coax voters to support him. Since California’s 50th district is a border district, issues of race and ethnicity play an important part in its politics. Hunter used fear mongering and racist propaganda as a backlash strategy against Campa-Najjar to gain popularity. As a Republican-leaning, mostly white district (US Census Bureau, 2018), this district’s voters were more likely to be swayed by rhetoric that Trump is known to use. White voters are essentially mostly concerned with losing their own white privilege. The whites’ fear of “racial retribution” (Parker, 2016) at the expense of their own privilege is possibly what drives them to vote for someone who will guarantee the survival of their privilege. This “badge of advantage” (Coates, 2016), allowing white people to feel of higher status, is what many white Americans seek to preserve. In 2016, Trump used racial slurs and Islamophobic statements (Bump, 2018) in order to maintain the “high” (Hochschild, 2016) people feel when they are part of an exclusive group of people. These (white) people generally believe that they have been waiting in line for success much longer than anyone else, and laws protecting minority rights unfairly allow minority groups to cut through this line without much effort (Hochschild, 2016). Trump supporters, therefore, favor candidates who make them feel like their privilege will not be taken away (Hochschild, 2016). Hunter was one of such candidates. He often referred to DREAMERs as “illegal aliens” (CBS News, 2010). He defended expelling them from the state (CBS News, 2010) by claiming that California just could not “afford” (Stickney & Krueger, 2010) to keep these people. His immigration agenda on his Congressman website (Hunter, 2018) highlighted the use of E-Verify to ensure only American citizens gained employment. In a meeting with the Intermountain Republican Women Federated, he said people outside of America did not deserve to enter the country, even if they came from “somewhere bad”––which, according to him were places like Africa (Presha & Stimson, 2018). Hunter claimed that because they never fought or worked for America, they did not deserve citizenship (Presha & Stimson, 2018). This rhetoric, portraying people of other ethnicities as undeserving line-cutters, echoes the kinds of observations sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild (2016) made about Trump supporters in Louisiana. She found that these voters believed that the Obama administration’s and the Democrats’ efforts to promote racial and ethnic equality set out to harm their white privilege. This is why they chose to support Trump, who vowed that their jobs, livelihoods and their privilege would be safeguarded. Hunter, with a voter base similar to that of Louisiana’s (a white, Trump-favoring majority (US Census Bureau, 2017)), capitalized on this sentiment and created the same “high” Trump did by emphasizing the importance of being an American citizen in all of his speeches.
Much of the rhetoric Hunter used during the time before the election itself came as a reaction to Campa-Najjar. A backlash strategy entails using “coercive power” to regain a lost position in power (Mansbridge & Shames, 2008). In Trump’s case in 2016, the Republicans were a former “in-group” (Mansbridge & Shames, 2008) trying to regain power. Trump did so by using mockery, a form of “soft repression” (Mansbridge & Shames, 2008) against Clinton and the minorities Obama tried to protect, and by suggesting violence (Corsaniti & Haberman, 2016), a form of “overt force” (Mansbridge & Shames, 2008). In this way, a backlash against those challenging the status-quo tries to and sometimes succeeds at maintaining the status-quo (Mansbridge & Shames, 2008). Hunter’s attacks against Campa-Najjar were, therefore, part of a backlash strategy. Campa-Najjar, challenging an incumbent, tried to create an anti-corruption movement in this district (Golshan, 2018). He proposed expanding the working middle-class and creating post-trauma assistance opportunities for veterans, and he supported both Medicare for all and the DREAMers (San Diego Union-Tribune, 2018). Compared to Hunter’s in-group policies, these stances were very liberal. After Hunter’s indictment, Campa-Najjar also began to gain more news coverage and popularity (Smolens, 2018). Feeling threatened, Hunter lashed out at Campa-Najjar using his race, religion, and ethnicity against him.
Other than being used to regain power, backlash can also be utilized by an in-group to maintain its power, specifically if the in-group fears a potential loss in power (Mansbridge & Shames, 2008). Using soft repression, Hunter presented Campa-Najjar’s race, religion, and ethnicity as a threat to his voter base. His attack ad (Hunter, 2018) against Campa-Najjar portrayed him as a malicious Palestinian Muslim trying to gain power and “infiltrate” Congress. This is particularly important because it shows that Hunter was afraid of losing to Campa-Najjar. Hunter’s attack ad, known for the sheer amount of false information it contained, can be seen as an act of desperation at a time when he was unsure of his popularity. There is a degree of risk attached to releasing negative advertisements. Attack ads are not generally effective (Lau, 1999) and even have the ability to demobilize certain voters (Krupnikov, 2011). Therefore, negative advertisements, especially those released later on in a political race, are released only when absolutely necessary. Since negative advertisements are usually released out of necessity, trying to gain more press coverage (Iyengar, 2016), they tend to be more common in races that are projected to be very close or whose outcomes are perceived as unpredictable. This can be seen in the fiercely contested presidential election of 2008, when both Barack Obama and John McCain released an extremely high percentage of attack ads (Kessler, 2012). The fact that Hunter unveiled his particularly harsh near-propaganda advertisement as late as the very end of September, despite the dangers of going negative, shows that he was desperate. Using such an advert at all also shows that he knew there was a possibility that this race would not be as comfortable for him as his previous political races had been. This particular advert and his relentless scrutiny of Campa-Najjar, reveal that Hunter was afraid of Campa-Najjar’s growing popularity (Golshan, 2018).
Apart from the advert, Hunter used other methods of soft repression to strengthen his backlash movement against Campa-Najjar. He was recorded claiming Campa-Najjar had changed his name from Yasser Najjar to Campa-Najjar on purpose to hide his identity (Presha & Stimson, 2018). Through most of the campaigning season, he continually brought back the fact that Campa-Najjar’s grandfather––who passed away before Campa-Najjar was born––was a part of a terrorist attack in Munich (Hunter, 2018). Moreover, he released a statement on illegal immigration and border patrol just a day or so prior to the election (FOX 5, 2018). This racially motivated backlash also helped Hunter exploit people’s preconceived fears about a new challenger with a seemingly non-traditional background. The advertisement Hunter released and the openly racist statements he made against Campa-Najjar were proven to be untrue and Islamophobic (Rizzo, 2018). After all, Campa-Najjar is a Christian, not a Muslim. Despite this, Hunter managed to instill a kind of fear inside of people of his opponent. Voters began to mistrust him: Campa-Najjar’s chances of winning decreased by 5.8 percent in one day after the negative advert was released (Silver, 2018, Classic). Hunter’s success can also be seen in the fact that he had a clear lead earlier on in the election (Castellano, 2018) in white-dominated census places such as Jamul, Lakeside, Ramona and Valley Center (Data USA, 2016).
Ideological Collusion and Partisanship: The Failure of the Republican Party and its Voters
Within this political climate, Campa-Najjar could have still won, had Republican party members and voters acted more responsibly. “Ideological collusion” (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018) and “negative partisanship” (Edsall, 2018) led the Republicans––both party members and voters–––to allow Hunter to escape the blame for his crimes. The Republican party failed to address Hunter’s criminal activity and anti-democratic behavior, largely due to the fact that their interests––winning a seat in the House––overlapped with his. Like Trump, Hunter has always shown a certain disregard for democratic norms. His tendencies pass the litmus test that political scientists, Steven Levitsky and David Ziblatt in How Democracies Die (2018, pp. 60-67) set for an anti-democratic politician: 1) Disrespecting democratic processes: he used campaign funds for his own personal expenses (Stack, 2018) and attacked the media and the judiciary for his indictment (Choi, 2018); 2) Denying an opponent’s legitimacy: he released an advertisement (Steinhauer, 2018) that claimed Campa-Najjar was a terrorist trying to infiltrate the democratic system and 3) Willingness to curtail civil liberties: he said Attorney General Jeff-Sessions “better be” (Ong, 2018) fired after the midterm elections and he openly supported Russia, claiming the US also interferes in many elections (Ong, 2018). Even if Hunter ticked off just three out of the four requirements for this test (his call to nuke North Korea (Stewart, 2017) leans dangerously towards the fourth, an encouragement of violence, too), it is still concerning to see that someone like him has held a seat in the House for a full five terms.
The Republican party’s reaction to this was disappointing. They could have even avoided Hunter winning the primaries entirely, by endorsing Bill Wells, another Republican running in the district during the primaries (Smolens, 2018). Considering the fact that Hunter had been under investigation for more than five years, this would have been a better plan of action. However, party elites, falling prey to Hunter Sr.’s influence, decided to remain silent as he compelled contributors not to donate to Wells’ campaign (Smolens, 2018). Even after the indictment, very few came forward to call him out for his crime. Majority members were silent (Garofoli, 2018). In a statement about Hunter’s indictment, California Republican Party Chairman, Jim Brulte, said “individuals are presumed innocent” until a jury convicts them (CBS8, 2018). In this case, Republicans, realizing that they could not afford to lose this seat for fear of a Democrat-leaning House, decided to see if Hunter could win (Garofoli, 2018). This is the same tactic they used in the 2016 election, refusing to endorse Clinton in order to further their own agenda with Trump. This ideological collusion might be the reason why Campa-Najjar lost. The Republicans, in order to cater to their own interests, were unwilling to call out their party’s own criminal members (Freedland, 2016). They, as “party gatekeepers”, have the duty to endorse candidates who value their party’s and their country’s values, someone who will protect the people’s interests over their own (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018, p.55). First in Trump’s case and now in Hunter’s, the Republicans failed to fulfill this duty. In a solidly Republican district, voters needed a real, concrete reason to vote Democrat. If the party still supported Hunter then very few would understand why they should not vote for him (Blood & Watson, 2018). Considering the fact that their strategy to remain silent worked before––i.e. in the case of Trump–––Republicans decided to use it once again.
Part of the reason why they did this was the partisanship that has come to dominate the political sphere in America (Chokshi, 2016). Strongly partisan voters vote for their party regardless of who the candidate is (Morone & Kersh, 2018, pp. 313-316). An exit poll for the midterms, carried out by CNN, showed that 94 percent of Republicans voted for Republican House candidates (Gawthorpe, 2018). According to Patrick Murray, director of the nonpartisan Monmouth University Polling Institute (2018), one in 10 voters in California 50th thought that Hunter was probably guilty of campaign fraud, but were still ready to vote for him. Negative partisanship, a phenomenon that has become specifically popular in the Trump Era, is when voters vote for a party simply to oppose another party (Edsall, 2018). Candidates attacking the opposing side feed into this phenomenon. This can be seen through the Republican party’s propagation of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality (Decker, 2017) in the form of the “liberal mob” (Viser & Costa, 2018) narrative against the Democrats. In California 50th, voters fell for such tactics, swayed by Hunter’s attack ad and his racist rhetoric against Campa-Najjar. Thirty-nine percent of voters voting Republican said that they were voting “against Campa-Najjar” (Survey USA, 2018). Reluctant to cross party lines, voters supported Hunter because he was the Republican candidate; some voted for him even though they believed he was guilty of the charges against him. In this way, voters failed to hold their own representative accountable for his corrupt actions because they were so focused on voting along party lines. The polarizing ability of partisanship meant that Republican voters were less keen to vote for Campa-Najjar regardless of his campaigning techniques because he was from the opposing side: the Democrats.
In conclusion, Hunter’s incumbency, giving him greater recognition amongst voters and allowing him to trust his retired but popular ex-congressman father to run his campaign while benefiting off of his father’s many contacts in politics, ensured that Hunter had an upper hand in the election. In a majority white, conservative district with a high Trump approval rating, Hunter was able to use racist rhetoric under a backlash strategy against Campa-Najjar to swing voters towards him. These fear-mongering tactics allowed Hunter to distract voters from his indictment. The Republican party and most Republican voters, blinded by party loyalty and the fear of losing a seat in the House, failed to hold Hunter accountable for his anti-democratic behavior and his corrupt actions. In this way, another candidate who readily broke democratic norms emerged victorious in front of a progressive candidate seeking to bring change in the politics of his district.
The Midterms and America’s Current Political Landscape
Even though Hunter won this race, it should still be acknowledged that this was a narrow win compared to his previous victories. Hunter’s attempts may have succeeded, but it should still be noted that causing a candidate who belongs to such a strong political dynasty to feel threatened is no small feat. Moreover, the numbers show that Campa-Najjar managed to turn Republican voters towards him. In a solid red district, this is a victory in and of itself.
America’s political system is based upon certain ideals. It is a nation built by a revolution against the loss of independence and representation, championing ideas of equality, liberty and self-rule (Morone & Kersh, 2018, pp. 9-50). While there might be some conflict over what each of these ideas mean to different people, ultimately when they are attacked, Americans manage to find some common ground to fight for these beliefs. Barack Obama’s sweeping victory in 2008, under the banner of a United States of America and as a reaction to the sad mistakes of the Bush administration, is reflective of this unity (Rohter, 2008). It is not impossible, then, for Americans to unite for a joint cause and for change. This midterm election saw the highest turnout rate since 1914 (Nilsen, 2018), with a surge in the youth vote (Chalabi, 2018). A record number of women ran for (Shalby, 2018) and were elected to Congress (Zhou, 2018). These truths are important because they show that Americans are ready to stand up against a President who has shown such disregard for the ideas they believe in and the norms that guide their democratic system.
California 50th’s House race may not have turned completely, but it did show that many voters were unwilling to sit by and watch a corrupt politician win in their territory. Americans value accountability, the foundation of their governmental system–––as is shown by the Separation of Powers–––is based upon ideas of accountability (Morone & Kersh, 2018, pp. 59-61). Duncan Hunter, refusing to respect democratic values of forbearance and mutual toleration, (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018) lied to his voters and defrauded them. The consequence of this was a narrowly won election; voters had to hold him accountable for his crimes. There is evidence of strong partisanship within the election, guiding certain voters to vote for Hunter regardless of the charges against him, however, there is also evidence of compromise and unity. Campa-Najjar propagated the idea of Country over Party, calling for people to unite against a politician who had cheated them. The fact that this Hispanic, Palestinian Democrat, riding a “blue wave” (McBain, 2018) won 48.2 percent of the vote in a district that has clearly voted Republican for years, shows that voters were willing to put Country over Party (Lee, 2018). Observing the willingness of California 50th’s voters to embrace change, perhaps there is still hope for the rest of America to follow suit as well.
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