SAN FRANCISCO — As the summer of 2014 began, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter and his wife, Margaret, were broke. And it wasn’t for the first time.
The family bank account was overdrawn. During one week in June of that year, the bank sent the Hunters four “insufficient funds” notices, returned four bounced checks and charged them a stiff overdraft fee.
No matter, though, because the Hunters were treating friends to a weekend at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach. According to the indictment filed Tuesday against the couple for violating campaign finance laws, the Hunters spent $1,163 on food and drinks at the resort, the bill for their personal enjoyment paid out of the Duncan D. Hunter for Congress campaign account.
The 47-page indictment, detailing years of allegedly illegal campaign spending to the tune of $250,000, is a document that would destroy most candidates for office.
But even now, Democrats are not overly optimistic about their prospects of defeating Hunter, a Republican who was first elected in 2008 to a seat held by his father for a generation.
The district, which covers inland San Diego County and part of Riverside County, has not appeared on the target lists for Democrats, who are focused on more than a half-dozen other Republican districts in California.
That may change. On Tuesday, nonpartisan election handicapper Dave Wasserman moved the district from definitively Republican to likely Republican and tweeted that it “has the potential to get more competitive.” But as Democrats seek to wrest control of Congress, there will be many other districts across the country with more takeover potential.
Expecting Hunter to be weakened by the long-running scandal, Democrats had hoped to compete against him in November with a fellow veteran, former Navy SEAL Josh Butner. The district has long celebrated its military ties; both Hunters’ political careers were built on their service, the father’s in Vietnam and the son’s in Iraq.
Butner failed to catch fire among voters, who turned instead to Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 28-year-old Democrat who worked in the Department of Labor during the Obama administration and who received the former president’s endorsement. Campa-Najjar ran on his support for “Medicare-for-all,” universal preschool and other liberal policy priorities.
But in the June nonpartisan blanket primary, more than a year after questions were first raised about his spending, Hunter won 47.4 percent of the vote, more than 10 points more than Democratic candidates combined.
Campa-Najjar outraised Hunter by $200,000 as of the latest reporting period in July and said Wednesday he expects Hunter to stay in the race through November.
“My focus is continuing to earn the support of voters,” Campa-Najjar said. “I don’t expect Duncan Hunter to resign. He should, but obviously he doesn’t have the record of doing the right thing.”
Hunter, who will be arraigned with his wife in federal court on Thursday, blamed the indictment in a Wednesday statement on “politically motivated” prosecutors and a “salacious media.”
“I fought for our nation against terrorists in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I fight for my constituents in the halls of Congress. I will fight this in the same manner and with the same level of determination because I believe in what I am fighting for and still have faith that evidence and the rule of law will trump political agendas and bias.”
Prosecutors portrayed a very different reality, one in which there was no expense too big or too small to be paid out of campaign funds. There was the $14,000 family vacation to Italy and a pair of sports headphones from Best Buy, tickets to see the National Football League’s Chargers and McDonald’s meals, Margaret Hunter’s mother’s trip to Poland and tequila shots at a bachelor party, greens fees at exclusive golf clubs and Uber rides to see friends. All told, there were 200 visits to fast-food restaurants and 48 trips to Walmart.
In 2015 alone, the indictment said, the couple spent $1,562 in campaign funds on charges related solely to video games.
The spending, roughly carried out between 2010 and 2016, drew repeated warnings from the campaign treasurer, who at one point threatened to resign unless the couple stopped using the money as their own. According to the indictment, the couple lied to the treasurer and a concerned campaign fundraiser to mask the real reasons for the spending.
Margaret Hunter explained away groceries at Vons — which she and her husband bought on 29 separate occasions between 2010 and 2015 — as food for campaign events. She said three pillows and other home decor from Target was for fundraisers. Spending on children’s books and puzzles was for “toy drives” and hospital charities. All of it, the indictment says, was for the couple’s personal use.
By December 2012, the couple had drained the campaign account. The treasurer advised Hunter that he could not pay several outstanding bills, and that the bank was sending insufficient fund notices with increasing frequency.
In response, Hunter pledged to raise $15,000 in the coming weeks to pay off the bills. But the spending did not stop.
Asked by his chief of staff about one golf outing in October 2014, which cost the campaign $204, Hunter said it was “a Christian thing” with one of his supporters. It was, in fact, a regular golf game with a friend.
Perhaps most eye-popping, considering Hunter’s background and the conservative makeup of his district, were allegations that the Hunters used the military as cover for their personal spending.
In March 2015, Hunter wanted to buy a pair of Hawaiian shorts but lacked the money. Margaret Hunter advised him to use campaign funds at a golf shop, the indictment said, saying the expense could be described as “some [golf] balls for the wounded warriors.”
A few months later, the Hunters used campaign funds for a family trip to Italy. Hunter, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, contacted the Navy to arrange a tour during his holiday that the indictment said was meant to justify the use of campaign funds.
The Navy responded that it had only one date available for such a tour that would not fit well with Hunter’s itinerary.
“Tell the navy to go f*** themselves,” Hunter wrote to his chief of staff. No tour occurred, but the couple used $14,261 in campaign funds to pay for the trip.
Margaret Hunter told the campaign treasurer that the trip was “mostly military/defense meet related.” She also emailed a friend, according to the indictment.
“Italy was amazing,” she wrote. “Truly our best family trip so far.”
The indictment has already generated local outrage. The San Diego Union-Tribune, in an editorial Tuesday, called Hunter “corrupt to the point of caricature” and his spending rationales a “craven lie.”
“He has disgraced himself more thoroughly than his critics ever could,” the editorial said, demanding his resignation.
Still, criticism doesn’t make the district competitive.
In 2016, Hunter defeated his Democratic rival by 27 points — more than 76,000 votes — even as Hillary Clinton was trouncing Donald Trump statewide. In a midterm election in which Republicans typically have more dependable turnout, a Democratic victory would require Republicans to abandon Hunter.
“While thousands of Republicans may pass on voting for him this year, I think most will still vote for a Republican to keep the seat from falling to a former Obama official who will vote for Pelosi to be speaker,” Republican strategist Rob Stutzman said. “Republican voters know if Hunter ends up being guilty and resigning after the election, they’ll be able to install another Republican in a special election.”
Campa-Najjar is also far more liberal than the district. “A military vet would make this a different conversation,” Stutzman said.
Locally, however, Democrats were hoping weeks of criticism before the November election would make the district competitive.
Former San Diego County Democratic Party chair Francine Busby acknowledged the long odds but called the indictment “a break we’ve been waiting for.”
“We’ve seen some evidence that people are more open to voting for a Democrat, and this development with Hunter certainly boosts those prospects,” she said.