Hunter’s Son May Not Scare Off Others

Posted April 18, 2007 at 6:19pm

Duncan D. Hunter (R) has his father’s name, and the status of being an Iraq War combat veteran, which leads many political observers to believe that he is Rep. Duncan Hunter’s (R) heir apparent in California’s 52nd district — except that he might not be.

After waiting for more than two decades for Hunter’s district to open up, several Republicans are eying the eastern San Diego County seat. Many of them are better-known and have deeper roots in the community than Hunter’s 30-year-old son. The potential candidates include a few former state Assemblymen, a school board member and a multimillionaire or two with the power to self-fund their campaigns.

“While it’s a nice thought that the Congressman’s son gets to take his dad’s place, Congressional seats don’t come around very often,” said a California Republican operative who is familiar with the district. “And people are going to say a new fresh breath of air wouldn’t be a bad thing.”

Rep. Hunter has launched an upstart bid for president and announced that win or lose, he intends to retire at the end of his current term, his 14th in the House.

His son, a Marine who is preparing to deploy back to the Middle East for another tour of duty scheduled to last until the end of this year or the beginning of 2008, is set to file candidacy papers within days and already has hired GOP consultant Dave Gilliard to run his campaign.

In an unconventional twist, Hunter will conduct at least the first half of his primary campaign in absentia, relying on surrogates — especially his wife, Margaret — to speak on the stump and raise money for his bid. While California’s presidential primary is set for Feb. 5, primary day for state and Congressional races is in early June.

“It’s unusual and we’re coming up with ways to deal with that,” Gilliard said, regarding Hunter’s expected absence from the campaign trail.

The Congressman is well-liked in his district, and his son’s military background and the fact that he shares his father’s name makes the younger Hunter an extremely formidable candidate. But his entry into the race isn’t necessarily intimidating other prospective candidates.

Ken King (R), a 56-year-old multimillionaire businessman who has indicated a willingness to spend his own money on a campaign, said he expects to announce his candidacy shortly. The first-time candidate was effusive in his praise of Duncan D. Hunter, particularly his willingness to serve in combat.

But the longtime activist said he believes his wealth of business experience and years of community service make him just as qualified to be the area’s next Congressman, if not more so.

“He’s a veteran; he should be commended for making the commitment,” King said Wednesday. “But … he’s 30. I’m 56. In the last 20 to 25 years I’ve been a ground troop here in San Diego County.”

King, born and raised in east San Diego County, has spent the past 10 years living in the northern part of the county. But he is buying a house in La Mesa and plans to be a resident of the Congressional district again sometime in June.

Meanwhile, several other names are being bandied about as possible candidates, with only a few ruling out a bid.

Among the Republicans most talked about as potential candidates are San Diego County School Board Member Bob Watkins; San Diego Superior Court Judge and former state Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith; and former state Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel, who currently is a member of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) administration.

Also the subject of speculation are former state Assemblyman Steve Baldwin; radio talk show host Mark Larson; multimillionaire Eric Roach; and former state Assemblyman Jay La Suer.

Some Republicans following this race say Hunter’s candidacy likely will keep the number of primary candidates to a minimum. The 52nd district is staunchly conservative, and the winner of the Republican primary should cruise to victory in the general election.

Hunter himself believes it could be a crowded race, although one of his rumored primary opponents, state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, said Wednesday he has decided not to run and is endorsing Hunter.

Some opponents have raised questions about Hunter’s ability to run for office while also on active military duty. But Hunter said he has received a directive from the Department of Defense giving him an OK to run for Congress.

Meanwhile, Hunter acknowledged that he doesn’t have a long political history in the 52nd district. Still, he doesn’t expect that — or his inability to personally campaign until early next year — to hamper his bid.

“I don’t think scores of years in public service necessarily qualifies anybody to be a Representative,” Hunter said, adding: “It’s going to be kind of a proxy campaign here. My wife, Margaret, will be filling in for me, and my friends and supporters will be carrying on the campaign for me.”

Some Republicans are speculating that Hunter will have a tough go of it because of his inability to personally campaign and raise money. But others say this might prove to be an asset.

Barry Jantz, a Republican activist based in San Diego County who spent 16 years as a La Mesa city councilman, predicted it would be tough politically to criticize Hunter while he’s at war, particularly in a district that is so supportive of the military.

Jantz said there was no way the primary field would clear for Hunter, as the seat is simply too attractive for some Republicans to pass up. But he noted that because support for Congressman Hunter runs deep, his son’s candidacy would probably keep some otherwise very formidable and likely candidates out of the race.

Jantz described the district as being extremely conservative, explaining that most independent voters — and there are many — tend to register that way because they believe the GOP is not conservative enough. As a general rule, the bulk of these voters end up aligning with the Republican Party once Election Day rolls around. No Democrat is expected to seriously contest the seat.

“If [Hunter] is not here and runs with surrogates, it makes him potentially even stronger,” Jantz said.