Hunter, however, remains on the ballot, and while his district outside San Diego has been a Republican stronghold, the party could have more trouble than usual there. Because of California’s election rules, it is nearly impossible for him to be taken off the ballot unless he dies or asks a judge to remove his name. The state’s top-two primary forecloses the possibility of a write-in or independent candidate, and in a nonpartisan system, the Republican Party has no power to replace him on the ballot.
That means the GOP is stuck with an incumbent under the cloud of an indictment, which in a mad-dash scramble for the House majority could cost Republicans a seat they can’t afford to relinquish. Election forecasters have already given Democrats an edge in their fight to pick up the 23 seats they need to retake the House, and Hunter’s seat in California’s 50th district wasn’t previously on the list of competitive races. But the indictment is already inspiring Democrats to take a fresh look at the district. Though it had been known for months that Hunter was under investigation, the timing of the indictment seemed to catch both parties by surprise.
“From a landscape perspective, this is obviously tough terrain for Democrats. It’s a district Trump won by 15 points,” noted Jeb Fain, a spokesman for House Majority PAC, the main Democratic super PAC. But “this indictment has all the appearances of a game-changer,” he told me. “The details are damning. It’s the kind of story that has legs, and it’s safe to say it’s caught our attention.”
The super PAC already had $1.2 million in television time reserved in San Diego for the home stretch of the campaign. It planned to use that for ads in the nearby 49th district, which Hillary Clinton carried in 2016 and had already been a top Democratic target due to the retirement of incumbent GOP Representative Darrell Issa. But some of that money could be routed to the 50th district, where Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a first-time candidate and former staffer in the Obama White House, was previously mired in an uphill battle against Hunter.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—the party’s official campaign arm—is taking a more cautious approach to its chances in Hunter’s district. In a statement reacting to the indictment, spokeswoman Meredith Kelly sought to place the news in the context of the Democrats’ national message against GOP corruption.
“Hunter’s misuse of $250,000 worth of campaign funds for personal expenses and the filing of false campaign finance records is emblematic of the corruption and twisted priorities of today’s Republican Party,” Kelly said. “While everyday families are struggling to afford healthcare, prescription drugs and property taxes, their Republican representatives in Congress are focused solely on enriching themselves and their donors.”