JULIE WATSON and CAROLYN THOMPSON
Winning re-election while indicted is a rare feat in U.S. history.
But two Republican congressmen are attempting to do just that in November’s midterm elections: Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Chris Collins of New York.
After pleading not guilty in August to separate federal charges, both congressmen are entering the final weeks of the campaign doing what they can to lay low. They have largely avoided the media and refused to debate their opponents. Both declined repeated requests to comment for this story.
Instead, they have mostly appeared at Republican-friendly events, and run attack ads against their Democratic challengers that some say seek to exploit racial prejudice and xenophobia.
Indictments and even jail time have not always ended political careers. A few have won re-election while facing criminal charges and some ended up exonerated. Others were convicted and later resigned.
But the Collins and Hunter contests are emerging as a fresh test of partisanship in the Trump era. Some voters may look past such a blemish this year to ensure that their preferred party remains in power.
“If you look at the question of partisanship, it sort of makes sense to me why Republican voters would prefer a Republican under indictment to a Democrat,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan analytical newsletter at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Two decades ago, partisanship was not as strong, and (they) would have been in more trouble.”
Collins, 68, initially suspended his campaign after being charged with insider trading that prosecutors say helped his son and others avert nearly $800,000 in stock losses. But he reversed course over the difficulty in removing his name from the ballot, saying the stakes “are too high” to allow a Democrat to take the congressional seat he has held for three terms.
Democrats are trying to pick up 23 seats nationwide to win control of the House.
Don Lloyd, a 70-year-old retired engineer who lives in Eden, New York, said he’ll vote for Collins even though he believes he should not be running.
“But what am I really voting for? I’m voting for a Republican,” Lloyd said. “And let’s face it, the election isn’t about Chris Collins. It’s about Trump. … I’m supporting the Republican Party.”
Collins came under fire for a TV ad that showed his Democratic opponent, Nate McMurray, speaking Korean, over a backdrop of ominous music, a portrait of the North Korean dictator and captions falsely implying he was talking about sending American jobs to Asia. McMurray has studied and taught law in South Korea and is married to a woman from South Korea.
In California, Hunter and his wife face a 60-count indictment accusing them of using more than $250,000 in campaign funds for everything from a family trip to Italy to Costco shopping sprees and then trying to hide the illegal spending in government records as donations to charities, including for wounded warriors.
After his last court appearance in San Diego, Hunter was swarmed by protesters, including one wearing a bunny suit in reference to claims that he used campaign funds on airfare for a pet rabbit.
“We’re still running, and we’re going to win,” Hunter told reporters over the chants of “lock him up!”
Polls suggest the race has tightened between the 41-year-old former combat Marine and his opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 29-year-old first-time candidate who worked in the Obama administration.
Hunter, who is seeking his sixth term, has struck back with a YouTube ad alleging Campa-Najjar, a Latino Arab-American, is working to “infiltrate Congress.” It falsely asserts he is supported by the Muslim Brotherhood. It also mentions his Palestinian background. His father served in the Palestine Liberation Organization and his grandfather was a leader of the group that orchestrated the terror attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics that killed 11 Israeli athletes.
Dozens of national security experts have assailed the attacks as racist. Campa-Najjar, who was raised in San Diego by his Mexican-American mother, had little to do with his Palestinian father and his Palestinian grandfather was killed before he was born. The FBI vetted his family before giving him security clearances to work in the Obama administration.
Maria Patton, an independent, said she is still undecided about whom to vote for, but the attacks have turned her off.
“I don’t support that kind of mentality,” said the 60-year-old retired educator, who lives in La Mesa, east of San Diego. “I find it unfair.”
Hunter has stepped up the attacks as donations have poured in for his opponent, who raised $1.4 million in the third quarter compared with $132,000 by the incumbent.
“There’s a high premium on truth this election year,” Campa-Najjar told The Associated Press.
McMurray, town supervisor of Grand Island, also saw donations triple in the third quarter, when he raised $520,000 compared with $33,000 for Collins.
“Both Democrats and Republicans are starting to support me and there’s a reason: Because people want something better,” McMurray said.
Like Collins and Hunter, Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey refused to resign after being indicted in 2015 on corruption charges. The case was dismissed after a hung jury. He is now in a tight race with his Republican opponent.
In 2014, Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of New York was re-elected while under indictment, but later resigned after pleading guilty to tax evasion. After serving more than seven months in prison, he ran again in the June primary but lost.
Watson reported from San Diego. Thompson reported from Buffalo, New York.