Ammar Campa-Najjar speaks to the media and protesters outside the federal courthouse after Duncan Hunter arraignment in August.
Ammar Campa-Najjar speaks to the media and protesters outside the federal courthouse after Duncan Hunter arraignment in August 2018. Photo by Chris Stone

Barack Obama on Monday endorsed Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar for election to the vacant 50th Congressional District seat, but the backing could backfire.

In an East and North County district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 40% to 30% in registered voters (with 23.4% declining to pick a party), the former president may not be a help.

“Far left progressives Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders and now Barack Obama have endorsed Ammar Campa-Najjar,” said the campaign of GOP opponent Darrell Issa, the former 49th District congressman. “And he wants us to believe he’s a conservative?”

(Campa-Najjar doesn’t list endorsements by Warren, Ocasio-Cortez or Sanders on his campaign site.)

Contacted for comment on the Issa team remark, Campa-Najjar didn’t take the bait.

He said: “I’ll let the DC politicians fight each other. I’m focused on fighting for the people of this district. I’ve been endorsed by Republicans, independents and Democrats — anyone who’s interested in helping me lift the voices of CA50 is welcome.”

Campa-Najjar, 31, said he didn’t solicit Obama’s endorsement.

When asked if he welcomed Obama’s backing, he didn’t respond.

Earlier, Campa-Najjar texted Times of San Diego: “Biden and Trump are tied in this race, but Obama isn’t on the ballot.”

Obama announced his endorsements of 118 candidates in a Medium post, including eight California Democrats running for Congress. First-term Rep. Mike Levin of the 49th District was among them.

In a statement, Campa-Najjar added: “The stakes couldn’t be higher this November, as our district has struggled through a public health and economic crisis without a congressman this past year,” a reference to Duncan D. Hunter, who resigned after pleading guilty in a campaign funds misuse scandal.

But Campa-Najjar still praised the Obama boost.

“This endorsement raises the profile of a community that has long been forgotten by Washington, and for that I’m grateful. Together we, Americans from all political stripes, must meet this moment to ensure our government works for working-people and not the special interests that have divided us for far too long.”

Tuesday morning — about 26 hours after the endorsement — Campa-Najjar tweeted thanks.

By contrast, Levin tweeted news of the endorsement only a few hours later Monday.

San Diego Mesa College’s Carl Luna, the political science professor and longtime local observer, says the Obama endorsement helps Campa-Najjar more than it hurts him.

“It will help him with getting out the mainstream Democratic vote,” he said Tuesday via email. “More importantly, for Campa-Najjar, it should help pull in more support from the progressives wing of the party, even though Obama circa 2020 is now to the right of today’s Democratic left many of whom are still be smarting over the Bernie-debacle in both 2016 and 2020.”

Luna says the size of the progressive turnout is still a big variable.

“The endorsement can’t cost him anything from pro-Trump/Issa Republican voters who already see him as a leftist, but the Obama endorsement could alienate some moderate Republicans,” he said.

But Luna says that if Issa, 66, is betting he can reduce the race to a Trump versus Obama-stand in contest, he may have a problem because Trump is losing the independent voters and even the moderate Republicans Trump won in 2016.

In any case, if Campa-Najjar wins, it won’t be because he walked a tightrope in this race, Luna says.

“The simple reality is he and Issa are on different sides of a deep political ravine and any voters standing on a bridge between the two sides are discovering it’s the ghost of a bridge built out of political gossamer threads that collapsed in 2016-18.

“Independent/moderates are going to have to finally throw in their lot with one side or the other of our national ideological schism. Which helps Campa-Najjar as the Issa/Trump wing of the party is continually digging the ravine deeper.”

The latest federal election records show Issa leading Campa-Najjar in fundraising $8.2 million to $3 million. But the Republican had only $516,000 cash on hand as of June 30, compared with $890,000 for the Democrat. (Issa had to fight off a strong challenge from radio talker Carl DeMaio.)

Summary of latest contributions to CA50 rivals Darrell Issa and Ammar Campa-Najjar. Carl DeMaio was defeated in the primary.
Summary of latest contributions to CA50 rivals Darrell Issa and Ammar Campa-Najjar. Carl DeMaio was defeated in the primary. Image via FEC.

In his post, Obama said: “These candidates will help us redeem our country’s promise by sticking up for working-class people, restoring fairness and opportunity to our system, and fighting for the good of all Americans — not just those at the top.”

Two years ago, Obama endorsed Campa-Najjar in his race against six-term incumbent Hunter, son of former longtime Rep. Duncan H. Hunter.

As The San Diego Union-Tribune noted at the time, “Campa-Najjar served in various roles within the Obama administration, including a public relations position in the Employment & Training Administration.”

Updated at 4:10 p.m. Aug. 4, 2020