If the federal investigation of Rep. Duncan Hunter brings him down, who will step up?
It’s a question being discussed in political circles, particularly in Hunter’s east and north county 50th Congressional District.
On one level, the answer seems simple: popular state Sen. Joel Anderson is the first name that comes up among the politically savvy folks in the region. But timing could complicate matters and thwart any notion he or anybody else has about filling a Hunter void, if there is one.
Nobody who is thinking of jumping in if Hunter is out are maneuvering or even talking about the prospect openly, for good reason.
Right now, Hunter isn’t going anywhere. The Hunter brand remains strong in the district, the incumbent is — by most accounts — still popular as is his father who preceded him in Congress, and he could be a shoo-in for re-election.
But the criminal investigation into his misuse of campaign funds is heading into another year — an election year — and that creates uncertainty. Hunter has consistently said the misspent campaigns funds represent an honest mistake and the money has been paid back.
Maybe the FBI ultimately decides there’s not much there. Maybe not. In any event, the Republicans need a Plan B in a district they’ve owned for a long time.
If Hunter’s situation takes a turn for the worse — say, he’s indicted and/or withdraws from the race — the timing would make a huge difference. If it’s before the March candidate filing deadline, there could be a scramble among potential Republican candidates, possibly with Anderson among them.
Democrats would certainly join in — there are a couple now running against Hunter who have raised decent money — but that’s one of the most Republican districts in the state and a tough one to flip, scandal or no, with or without an incumbent.
A special election would be called to fill out the remaining months of Hunter’s term. That could run concurrent with the separate June primary for the full two-year term beginning January 2019. But if Hunter were to leave office after the filing period, or be so damaged that he’s politically dead in the water, that would present an unusual situation.
His name would remain on the ballot whether he’s campaigning or not. Heavy hitters now on the sidelines would have to remain there, save for a write-in effort.
The candidates running in the 50th district would be as they are today, assuming they all stay in.
Republicans: Hunter, translation services company executive Shamus Sayed and Sheriff’s Deputy Andrew Zelt.
Democrats: Rancher Pierre “Pete” Beauregard, former Navy SEAL Josh Butner, last year’s Hunter opponent Patrick Malloy, and former Department of Labor spokesman Ammar Campa-Najjar.
Only Butner and Campa-Najjar have raised six-digit campaign funds.
If the vacancy occurs after the filing deadline, the governor has the option of not calling a special election.
There’s no getting around the seriousness of Hunter’s predicament and that his political future could be in jeopardy. So it’s no surprise that “what if” scenarios are being discussed quietly and that some people are contemplating making a play should he go down.
But nobody seems to be talking of trying to push him out under the existing circumstances.
As for Anderson, he’s powerful in his 38th California Senate District — which overlaps much of the 50th district — has strong conservative credentials, and occasionally has worked across the aisle on select issues with Democrats, including Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez.
The senator was traveling this week and unavailable for comment. His supporters said he has long backed Hunter, endorsed him for re-election and would do nothing to undermine the congressman.
Anderson is a favorite of the Republican Party of San Diego County, so much so that its leaders gave him $200,000 in 2015 as he launched a campaign to oust incumbent county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, another Republican who has represented her East County constituents for a generation.
Jacob beat back that effort, forcing Anderson to withdraw from the campaign, and cruised to an easy re-election in 2016 as she has pretty much every four years. The move by Anderson, who is termed out next year, caused a nasty split among Republicans, though it remains to be seen whether that will carry over to future elections.
Should a timely vacancy open in Hunter’s district, there are plenty of potential candidates in addition to Anderson: Mayors Steve Vaus of Poway and Bill Wells of El Cajon, former Assemblyman Brian Jones of Santee and Councilman Mark Kersey of San Diego, to name a handful. Lemon Grove Mayor Rachel Vasquez or La Mesa council member Kristine Alessio are deemed to have bright political futures and could be in the mix, and there’s probably a rich business person or two who may be interested.
But some of them might be more tempted to go for Jacob’s seat in 2020 when she’s termed out, putting them in the position of quietly rooting for Anderson to run for Congress. Plus, there’s also his state Senate seat that will be open.
Other names have been tossed about, including termed-out North County Supervisor Bill Horn and Jacob herself, though the people I talked with didn’t think they would be likely to get in.
Radio personality and anti-tax crusader Carl DeMaio, the former San Diego city councilman, usually comes into discussion whenever there’s an open seat in the county.
Perhaps the most surprising scenario to surface is that Rep. Darrell Issa, facing a tough re-election campaign in his 49th district straddling San Diego and Orange counties, would jump over to a vacant 50th.
That seemed pretty far-fetched, and no one I talked with disagreed.