SAN DIEGO (AP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan D. Hunter submitted his resignation Tuesday, one month after pleading guilty to a corruption charge, leaving vacant one of the GOP's few remaining House seats in heavily Democratic California.
Hunter's departure effective Jan. 13 ends his family's political dynasty in which he and his father, Duncan L. Hunter, represented the San Diego County district for nearly 30 years. The combat Marine veteran — a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump — served 11 years in Congress.
His two-page letter of resignation — one version addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and another to California Gov. Gavin Newsom — lists his accomplishments and doesn't mention his criminal conviction. Newsom has not said whether he will order a special election or leave the seat open until a successor emerges from the November general election.
Hunter had been silent after saying early last month that he would step down “shortly after the holidays," drawing criticism last week from a fellow Republican who wants to succeed him, Carl DeMaio. The San Diego Union-Tribune asked in an editorial Monday, "What's he waiting for?"
Hunter, 43, gave no reason for resigning in his letter, instead offering a sweep of his achievements as a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and as a six-term congressman.
“During my time in Congress, I had the privilege of helping thousands of individuals in my district — from making sure veterans received the benefits they earned, to helping Social Security and Medicare recipients cut through red tape, to assisting immigrants seeking legal citizenship, and countless others going up against the IRS, ATF or other government agencies,” he wrote.
There is no clear Republican favorite to succeed the conservative, immigration hardliner — one of the few congressmen to be re-elected while indicted.
After claiming to be the victim of a political witch hunt for more than a year, Hunter pleaded guilty Dec. 3 to a single charge of conspiring with his wife to illegally spending at least $150,000 in campaign funds on personal expenses. Among the improper spending were a birthday gathering for his young daughter at a posh California hotel and social outing with friends at a French bistro in Washington.
He is scheduled to be sentenced March 17. The judge could impose the maximum sentence of five years, but prosecutors have said they will ask for no more than a year of jail time. His wife Margaret Hunter also pleaded guilty. She is scheduled to be sentenced in April.
An August 2018 indictment accused Hunter of using $200,000 in campaign money to fund family travel, school tuition, jewelry, groceries, gas etc. Prosecutors said he also spent the funds on extramarital affairs and flights for his family's pet bunny. He tried to conceal the illegal spending by listing it in federal records as donations for military veterans and other campaign-related expenses, according to the indictment.
Since the guilty plea last month, Hunter's father has maintained a defiant tone. He wrote in The San Diego Union-Tribune that his son was the victim of “a political hit job."
Holding the 50th Congressional District, which has an 11-point Republican registration edge, will be critical if the party hopes to reclaim control of the House after losing it to Democrats in 2018. The district includes ethnically diverse suburbs at the edge of San Diego that fade into farming and mountainous areas to east, including a small slice of Riverside County.
Hunter's seat is being sought by three GOP contenders with strong local name recognition. They are former Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the wealthiest lawmakers to serve when he represented parts of San Diego County and neighboring Orange County. Hunter's father recently endorsed him.
Also running are DeMaio, a former San Diego city councilman who now is a local political commentator and radio host; and state Sen. Brian Jones, who highlights that he's the only major Republican candidate who lives in the district.
Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar, a 30-year-old former Obama administration official who nearly defeated Hunter in 2018, is widely expected to emerge from the March primary for a November showdown.
Under California election rules, the top two vote-getters in the March 3 primary advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.
Democrats captured a string of GOP-held House seats in California in 2018, leaving Republicans holding only seven districts among the state's 53 House seats.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report