SAN DIEGO — Ammar Campa-Najjar is the son of an Arab father and a Mexican-American mother. His campaign for Congress has been embraced by Democratic activists across the nation. He is an advocate of tough environmental measures, including a permanent moratorium on offshore drilling, and legal protections for immigrants who were brought into this nation as children.
At 28, he has never run for office and is barely known in this suburban San Diego district near Camp Pendleton. But Mr. Campa-Najjar abruptly emerged Wednesday as a decidedly credible candidate to represent this solidly Republican enclave in a Democratic state, after the incumbent, Representative Duncan Hunter, a Republican, was indicted with his wife Tuesday on charges of using $250,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses.
The indictment came on the same day that President Trump’s former campaign chairman was found guilty of defrauding the federal government and his longtime personal lawyer pleaded guilty to campaign finance crimes, which he said he committed at the direction of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Campa-Najjar’s campaign had been something of a stepchild in a state that had been at the forefront of the Democratic battle to win control of Congress, attracting little attention. (“There were other mouths to feed,” he said of the party’s California priorities.)
But on Wednesday, he found himself in a whirlwind: calls from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a run of media interviews and an influx of contributions, as he became the latest rallying point for party activists excited by the prospect of a blue victory in a deeply red region of the nation.
Democrats had been focusing on seven Republican-held seats in this battleground state; that number has now grown to eight.
“People are giving me a second glance today who might not have before this indictment,” Mr. Campa-Najjar said, wearing a shirt and tie in an interview at an outdoor cafe here. “I’ve been saying for months now that we need more ethical leadership.”
“The question for voters, especially for conservative voters I’ve spoken to, if we have a congressman who can’t follow the law, how can we expect him to enforce the law?” he said. “I think there’s a dereliction of duty. I don’t think he’s fit to serve.”
[Read: Representative Duncan Hunter Is Indicted, Accused of Misusing Campaign Funds]
At least by the standards of the Democratic Party’s activist wing this year, Mr. Campa-Najjar is hardly a hard-core liberal. In the interview, he said he does not have enough information to take a position on whether Mr. Trump should be impeached. He said he liked the idea of Medicare-for-all, but that his support for it would be contingent on being convinced the government could afford it.
And he suggested that the Democratic Party was making a mistake in writing off supporters of President Trump. Mr. Campa-Najjar said he was actively recruiting Californians who had voted both for President Barack Obama in 2008 and President Trump in 2016.
“I come down hard on my party and people in my party who write them off,” he said. “These Trump supporters aren’t ignorant. They are ignored.”
Those positions to some extent seem tailored to the decidedly uphill battle any Democrat would face — indictment or not — running in a district where Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by a margin of 16 points.
“This looks like the sequel to the Alabama senate race,” said Thad Kousser, a political scientist at University of California, San Diego, referring to the defeat of the Republican candidate, Roy S. Moore, by a Democrat, Doug Jones. “His district is almost as red a district as Alabama is a red state. Hunter still looked untouchable in this district. In any normal year and with any normal candidate, he would really be in a district that would make him untouchable.”
Mr. Moore confronted allegations of sexual misconduct in his loss to Mr. Jones. In this case, the 47-page indictment filed against Mr. Hunter lays out an wide array of allegations against him and his wife, who are accused of using campaign funds as a personal piggy bank to pay for mundane expenses like dentist and water bills, supplies at Michael’s craft store, groceries at Albertson’s and their children’s school lunches and tuition.
They also used the money for more extravagant purchases like luggage sets, sneakers and new clothes to take with them on vacations in Lake Tahoe, Hawaii and Italy, as well as a plane ticket for a family pet, according to the indictment.
[Read: The Indictment of Duncan Hunter, Explained]
While the Hunters burned through campaign cash, their own bank accounts remained in nearly constant disarray. They overdrew their more than 1,100 times in a seven-year period, according to the indictment, racking up roughly $37,761 in “overdraft” and “insufficient funds” bank fees.
The indictment also lists an incident in which Mr. Hunter’s wife advised the congressman to falsely describe a personal clothing purchase as an expenditure on golf balls “for wounded warriors,” an apparent reference to the Wounded Warrior Project. That offense was particularly striking in a district that has historically had such a strong military presence because of Camp Pendleton. Military veterans make up roughly 10 percent of the population.
Scott Hickey, an Army veteran who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, said he was extremely offended by that allegation.
“It’s a form of stolen valor,” Mr. Hicken said, standing at the veteran’s art nonprofit where he works in Fallbrook. “For somebody to say they’re donating to a veteran’s organization, especially a nonprofit, that’s just a really crappy thing to do.”
Mr. Hickey, who described himself as politically conservative, said he had not decided whom to vote for in November.
Even as California has drifted increasingly Democratic, this inland, upper-middle-class suburb has remained solidly Republican. Mr. Hunter won by 27 percentage points in 2016. More than 40 percent of voters are registered Republicans, compared to 27 percent who are Democrats.
But like other suburban districts in Southern California, the area Mr. Hunter represents is shifting — Latinos now make up roughly a third of all residents. Mr. Campa-Najjar would, if elected, be the first member of Congress of Mexican and Arab decent, though, he disputed the suggestion that his background might be a hindrance in attracting local voters.
“I think it’s more of an asset,” he said. “I think people caricature my district. We’re not a bunch of backwards, backwoods, bigoted people. The district’s changing. I think it’s an asset for me to turn out the Latino population.”
Mr. Campa-Najjar, who worked at the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and for the Obama re-election campaign, has emphasized his family’s background as the child of a Mexican-American mother and a father who immigrated from the Middle East. When he was a child, his family moved to Gaza for several years, returning to San Diego when a war broke out there. Mr. Campa-Najjar’s grandfather led the plan to murder Israeli Olympians at the games in Germany in 1972; Israeli military commandos assassinated his grandfather, Muhammed Yusuf al-Najjar, in 1973.
“The question now is about the challenger: Is he really the right challenger who can oust the incumbent under fire. Is he a moderate person?” said Mr. Kousser, the political scientist. “Do the Democrats have and spend enough money to get him known as a Mexican-American who grew up in the district and had his first job with a church ministry? Or do voters just stop when they hear his name and that his grandfather was a terrorist? Is that what happens in a conservative military district?”
Mr. Campa-Najjar has, over the years, repeatedly distanced himself from his grandfather, whom he never met, and said he was prepared for Republicans to try to use the episode against him.
“If Hunter has to go back three generations to attack me, that must mean I’m a pretty clean candidate,” he said. “I can go back two days ago and tell you an indictment he had.”
There is no process to remove Mr. Hunter from the ballot under the nonpartisan open primary system that California uses. Still, support for Mr. Trump remains strong in this district, and members of Congress under indictment have been known to win re-election.
Even before the indictment, Mr. Campa-Najjar had raised more money than Mr. Hunter, bringing in nearly $1.1 million by the end of June, compared to $850,000 for Mr. Hunter.
Michael Sugamele, 66, a conservative who supported Mr. Trump, said he did not trust the media and was withholding judgment on this indictment.
“How can you have an opinion about it if you don’t really know the circumstances?” he said. “People get charged in this country all the time who are innocent.”
Erica Salinas, 28, a graduate student who is Latino, said she thought Mr. Hunter had neglected the district’s sizable Latino community as he served in Congress, in contrast to Mr. Campa-Najjar.
“I don’t know much about his politics, but he’s been showing up to events, he has made his presence known,” she said. “Where’s Duncan? He’s under indictment.”