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Thu 1 Nov 2018 11:29 AM

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Mexican-Palestinian facing tough battle in election race for US Congress

Ammar Campa-Najjar is trying to win a seat in Congress as a Democrat running in a staunchly conservative district in California

Mexican-Palestinian facing tough battle in election race for US Congress
Ammar Campa-Najjar (D-CA), who is running for congress in California's 50th District, speaks during a campaign rally at Grape Day Park in Escondido, California, on October 28, 2018.

His Republican opponent has been indicted for fraud, his campaign coffers are flush with donations and a major American ice cream brand has named a flavour after him.

But Ammar Campa-Najjar still faces a tough battle in his quest to win a seat in Congress during the upcoming US midterm elections - not least because of his Mexican-Palestinian heritage and the fact that he is a Democrat running in a staunchly conservative district in California.

"I wish this race was just about issues," the 29-year-old sighed as he spoke recently at a campaign rally north of San Diego, acknowledging that some of those who turned out for the event will not vote for him.

He then quickly addresses the elephant in the room, which relates to his Palestinian heritage and his grandfather's involvement in the 1972 massacre at the Munich Olympics, in which a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September killed 11 Israeli athletes and a German policeman.

"People try to label me all kinds of things," he tells his audience of mostly middle-aged and elderly people. "We need to tone it down."

He underlines that he has been estranged from his Palestinian father since the age of six, that he converted to Christianity by choice, was raised by his Mexican-American mother and has been granted a security clearance by the FBI.

With that out of the way, he launches into an hour-long explanation of his views on immigration, health care, gun laws and taxes.

Thrust at forefront of battle

Campa-Najjar's chances of winning the election in a solidly Republican district were considered all but nil until the incumbent, Duncan Hunter, and his wife were indicted in August for misusing $250,000 in campaign money to fund a lavish lifestyle.

Suddenly, the young candidate, who has never held elected office but served in various roles within the Obama administration, was thrust into the forefront of the battle by Democrats to win control of Congress on November 6.

Donations and endorsements began pouring in as Hunter's approval ratings slipped in several polls and the race became more competitive. The ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's even unveiled a new flavour - Ammar-etto American Dream - to honour Campa-Najjar.

Although Hunter is still forecast to win the race despite his legal troubles, the gap between the two candidates has narrowed as the election nears. The polling aggregation website FiveThirtyEight this week gave Hunter a 77 percent chance of winning as opposed to 90 percent in early October.

Smear campaign

The indicted congressman's offensive against Campa-Najjar has focused on his Palestinian heritage, falsely implying that he was linked to terrorism and was an "Islamist" trying to infiltrate Congress.

Campa-Najjar for his part has denounced his opponent as a "lawbreaker rather than lawmaker" and points out that he was born 16 years after his grandfather -- who stood accused of being one of the masterminds of the 1972 Munich massacre -- was killed by Israeli forces in retaliation.

"Hunter is trying to make this race as one between an indicted congressman and a security threat," he tells AFP in an interview. "But he happens to be both those things at the same time."

He says he realises he is fighting an uphill battle but hopes some Republican voters will be turned away by his opponent's tactics and criminal indictment and give him a chance.

"There is an opportunity there to build roads with people that otherwise would not think that there's any alignment between me and them," he says.

"It's really time to put country over party," he adds. "Partisanship has gone too far."

Of more than a dozen people interviewed in Campa-Najjar's district recently at a harvest festival in the town of Fallbrook, north of San Diego, several said his message appealed to them, but some vowed to vote for Hunter regardless of the criminal charges hanging over the Republican candidate.

"I am voting for Hunter because the alternative is unacceptable," said Greg Incledon, a 59-year-old retiree.

"I mean, where is this guy from? He's not local," he said, referring to Campa-Najjar, who was born in the San Diego area.

Lorna May, 55, said she was voting for Hunter, not because he appealed to her as a candidate but rather because she was a supporter of President Donald Trump.

"I think he (Hunter) is a crook just like a lot of other people but I am voting Republican," she said.

For Dan Ahrensberg, 83, the choice comes down to the "lesser of two evils."

"I'm a registered Republican but I am voting for Campa-Najjar," he said.

"I'm disgusted with both sides," he added. "I don't think this country is getting good representation.

"The leadership smells awful bad... and the party is all that matters, not the people."