The Surreal Saga of Disgraced GOP Congressman Duncan Hunter and His Campaign’s Missing $250K

Tarpley Hitt

The writers’ room for this season of being alive really balled out when they dreamed up the Duncan Hunter arc. Over the past few years, as details about the conservative congressman’s tenure representing California’s 50th district emerged, the story swung so rapidly from infuriating to hilarious it could have been plucked from an overzealous procedural. Here was a candidate who looked like a Golf Channel pundit, the successor to a West Coast political dynasty, who took charge of a Republican stronghold in the bluest state, embezzled some $250,000 in campaign money, got indicted by the feds, and won re-election in spite of it. Then, suddenly he flipped: Hunter pleaded guilty, resigned, and left his seat vulnerable to a Democratic challenger during one of the most engaged and bitter election cycles in recent memory. Add in the staffer affairs, racist dog whistles, 68 unexplained video game payments, an actual rabbit on a plane, and the whole thing sounded like what failed screenwriter Ben Shapiro might call “dramedy.”

Wednesday, the Duncan Hunter saga came to the digital screen as a five-part docu-series called The 50th, produced by Samuel Hodgson of The San Diego Union Tribune, the regional newspaper where reporter Morgan Cook first broke the story of Hunter’s campaign spending back in April of 2016. Those looking for hints of dramedy or even just a rendering of the Hunter saga in all its wild detail, will not find it in The 50th. But the series does serve as an informative primer on the congressman’s scandal, the race to replace him, and the reporter who figured it all out. 

The series starts with an overview of Hunter’s district, a rural territory covering much of San Diego County. It’s easy to see California as a blue monolith, down for legal weed, safe abortions and abundant almond milk. But the 50th—known as the 52nd until 2013, when the area was expanded in a redistricting initiative—votes more like Louisiana than Los Angeles, making it one of just seven Republican districts in the entire state, all clustered inland after the midterms swallowed the remaining red parts on the coast. Hunter took office in 2009, succeeding his father, also named Duncan Hunter, meaning that the 50th district has been overseen by a Republican named Duncan Hunter since 1981. 

That seemed poised to change in 2018 when, after months of reports that Hunter had misused public money for personal expenses, the Department of Justice unsealed an indictment charging the congressman and his wife on several counts of wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations, and conspiracy. The 47-page complaint detailed how the couple allegedly leeched campaign funds between 2009 and 2016 to pay for “hotel rooms, airline tickets and upgrades, meals and food, and entertainment expenses for vacations for themselves and their friends and family, including more than $14,000 for a family Thanksgiving vacation in Italy in November 2015,” as well as Star Wars merch, bachelor parties, clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch, a family trip to SeaWorld Aquatica Family Waterpark, and a plane ticket for their pet rabbit on a trip to Washington D.C. 

For months after the indictment, Hunter denied the allegations, calling the Union-Tribune fake news and mocking the charges as a witch hunt. He won the 2018 election, though a Democratic candidate named Ammar Campa-Najjar came close to taking it from him. In December of 2019, however, Hunter changed his story and pleaded guilty. He resigned from office earlier this month. “I failed to monitor and account for my campaign spending. I made mistakes and that’s what today was all about.” Hunter says in a press conference clip featured in the first episode. “That being said, I’ll have more statements in the future, about the future.” 

That all seems like important context for what’s happening now: three Republicans and a Democrat facing off for the chance to become the first non-Duncan Hunter to hold that seat in nearly 40 years. But The 50th inverts the chronology, hinting at the scandal before jumping into the race for 2020, meandering around candidate rallies and conventions, before making its way back to the extremely important catalyst of it all. It may be that the series was structured to save the most exciting parts for last, but the result does not register as suspense, so much as a confusion about where to start the story.

But the story starts anyway. The second episode begins after the indictment, but before Hunter’s guilty plea, when the race still has four Republican candidates. There’s Darrell Issa, the former California representative who was scared out of his seat in the neighboring 49th district by the midterm blue wave; Carl De Maio, a smug Never-Trumper who still makes jokes about straws; Brian Jones, a warm, sarcastic cowboy type and the sole candidate who actually lives in the district; and Hunter himself. There’s also another candidate—Campa-Najjar, who appears as the focus of the third episode. Hunter deployed heavily racist tactics, attacking Campa-Najjar, who is half-Palestinian, as an “Islamist” trying to “infiltrate Congress,” even though Campa-Najjar is Christian. But Campa-Najjar came closer than anyone thought he would in the deep red district. In 2020, the young Dem explains in the episode, he’s trying again and, given Hunter’s plummeting popularity, he may have a shot. 

The fourth episode hops back to the right side of the aisle, into a heated debate before the GOP primary. The candidates don’t really discuss their policies or platforms, choosing instead to attack their opponents—a pitfall the series falls into some itself. The 50th doesn’t attack anyone (it is entirely without bite, as to be expected from a newspaper), but it likewise fails to talk about what, exactly, the contenders are running on. When viewers meet the candidates, it’s at fundraisers or in interviews, during speeches about values, embarrassment over California’s liberal bent, and how to keep America great. Even Campa-Najjar doesn’t do much to differentiate himself or spell out what makes him the better choice. For a show that focuses so much on the election, The 50th doesn’t engage with the ideas that might well get one of them elected. 

The final episode delivers what everyone was waiting for: Hunter’s downfall. It’s a condensed summary of the saga, skipping over many of the best parts—the odd purchases, Hunter’s blustering explanations (to a Treasurer inquiry about whether a round of golf and beers was campaign-related, Hunter wrote: “Yessir-All good”), the affairs he funded on the side. But The 50th does tell a story that gets much less traction: how San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Morgan Cook found the scoop in a stray memo from the S.E.C. In April of 2016, Cook penned a 384-word piece about 68 mysterious payments Hunter had made for video games, and inadvertently stumbled into the saga that would end his career. Maybe it’s to be expected for a docuseries produced by a paper, but The 50th works best when it’s running a victory lap for the journalists who reported Hunter out of office. The full story, pet rabbits and all, can come later. I’m sure Hollywood will have someone on it soon. 

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