Labor unions are coming out strong for Democratic candidates seeking to unseat Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), an institution in his largely rural Republican-controlled district in the suburbs of San Diego.
Among those who would like to unseat Hunter in the 50th District in November are Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Labor Department spokesman during the Obama administration, and former Navy SEAL Josh Butner.
The California Labor Federation and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are backing Campa-Najjar, who also is leading the pack of three Democratic challengers, three Republicans, and one independent, in campaign contributions. The CLF includes 1,200 unions representing about 2.1 million union members.
Butner has the support of the International Union of Operating Engineers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Hunter, a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is seen as more vulnerable this year because of a federal probe into allegations that he misused campaign funds. In addition, Hunter’s support of moves to reverse what are seen as pro-worker Obama-era policies has stirred up Democratic opposition.
On the other hand, Hunter’s supporters could well dismiss the charges against him as political, some observers say. Hunter also has powerful name recognition. He has represented the district since 2008, after succeeding his father, also Duncan Hunter, who did so for 28 years.
Campa-Najjar, with a campaign heavily focused on labor issues like expanding apprenticeships, is tapping into his experience as a spokesman for the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration.
“I want to bring those models of job creation to this community,” he told Bloomberg Law. “I think it’s a big idea for jobs and the economy since most folks here have to commute hours a day to get to work and that’s pretty hard.”
CLF spokesman Steve Smith said the union liked Campa-Najjar’s focus on workers. “This is a process by which our delegates from all over our union ultimately choose and they were impressed by his support and platform for the working people,” Smith told Bloomberg Law.
Butner, who comes from a working-class family with roots in labor unions, said he was humbled to see the groups backing him on the campaign trail.
“I have always been a champion of labor unions,” he told Bloomberg Law. “I come from a working-class family and I support labor unions and the working-class families and I’m looking to build that momentum.”
The growing union support for the Democratic challengers could clear the path for larger campaign dollars leading up to the California primary election June 5. California has a top-two primary system, meaning the two candidates with the most votes win, regardless of party affiliation.
Some political observers and local union leaders told Bloomberg Law the conservative district could swing. Democratic candidates could win the support of voters opposing Republican President Donald Trump, and Hunter also could lose some voters amid the federal probe.
“A lot of these Democratic and Republican candidates are coming into this race with the allegations and the FBI investigation into Duncan Hunter,” said Stephen Goggin, a political science professor at San Diego State University.
Hunter’s list of challengers also includes Republican Shamus Sayed, chief operating officer of language services provider Interpreters Unlimited.
A spokesman for Hunter shrugged off the competition, however, telling Bloomberg Law that it’s “not unusual” for the congressman to face both Democrats and Republicans seeking his seat. He added that Hunter remains focused on his constituents.
“It’s business as usual” for the campaign, spokesman Michael Harrison said. “He has not heard anything from the FBI or Justice Department for over a year and has fully cooperated” with the investigation. He added that Hunter is not allowing the probe to “occupy his time or keep him from doing his job.”
The House Ethics Committee said last year that Hunter was under investigation by the Justice Department over allegations he used campaign money for personal expenses, including family trips.
The investigation may have sparked a sea of challengers, but that might not be enough to splinter support in a district where voters could see the allegations as baseless attacks on Republican lawmakers, just like allegations of misbehavior against Trump, said Carl Luna, a professor of political science at University of San Diego.
“I really don’t think at this point Duncan Hunter is going to lose this seat yet unless other shoes drop,” Luna told Bloomberg Law. “He’s got name and a bunch of institutional support since they’ve been in Congress and made a lot friends in all those years. It’s also one of the reddest parts of the county.”
Campa-Najjar leads in campaign dollars for all the candidates. He has raised $725,398 as of March 31, according to the federal election commission. That outpaces $671,386 for Hunter; $599,025 for Butner; and $253,179 for Sayed for the same time.
But the phone banking and the usual tools that follow a union endorsement may not be enough to unseat Hunter. Dollars are one way to figure out importance of a race, Luna said.
“Unions are doing more than they have in the last election and this seems like seed money for the future,” Luna said. “If you want to get serious about a swing district, you’re looking at millions of dollars coming in if you want to buy it. The fact that Hunter doesn’t have a lot campaign money is a weakness but he could be saving it for the fall, just in case.”
The union dollars could get more dollars to flow in for the two leading Democrats, a trigger for more funding to follow in the days to come, said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at University of California-San Diego.
“When you’re taking on an incumbent—and especially one with a family name so well-known—you have to have the money to get the message out as well as the foot soldiers. That’s when you are really for real,” he said. “Union money is smart money and it’s a signal to other donors that people are smelling blood.”
As a member of the House Workforce committee, Hunter has voted for several GOP-led efforts to reverse Obama-era regulations like changes to the National Labor Relations Board union election rules.
He has joined committee Republicans who voted for bills like the Workforce Democracy and Fairness Act (H.R. 2776), which would undo an NLRB decision recognizing “micro units” of workers for bargaining purposes, and the Employee Privacy Protection Act (H.R. 2775), which would limit the worker information employers must turn over to unions.
That doesn’t sit well with labor unions. Their support for Democratic candidates in Republican-controlled districts is something different this election year, fueled in part by a national campaign focusing on Democratic candidates in districts with heightened chances of swinging in their favor.
National union leaders told Bloomberg Law they’re putting a majority of their support and political dollars to work for Democratic candidates. The effort comes as Democrats could regain control of the House, a more likely outcome compared with the long-shot bid to secure enough seats to regain the majority in the Senate.
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