DESCANSO, Calif. — Billy O’Leary had one question for Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar after listening to the first-time candidate speak to a room of voters.

Standing on the steps outside a community center, O’Leary, 62, dressed in a cowboy hat and flannel button-up, told Campa-Najjar he had his vote “without question.” But with a name like Campa-Najjar, “How the hell did you expect to get elected in East County?”

“Barack Hussein Obama, there’s no Hussein in my name,” Campa-Najjar said without skipping a beat. "Like my parents couldn’t have fucked me more with this name,” he added, eliciting laughs from O’Leary and another voter standing nearby. “They couldn’t give me an Adam in there, something. No — Ammar. Campa. Najjar.”

Obama faced Islamophobic insults for having a "foreign" name and in the age of Trump, the epithets have only increased. Campa-Najjar has the misfortune of having a grandfather who was a notorious Palestinian terrorist. The fact that the grandfather died before he was born, and that the Democratic candidate is himself a Christian, has not stopped the anti-Muslim onslaught from his opponent, Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter.

Just eight years ago, were a sitting member of Congress under indictment like Hunter -- who along with his wife is facing 60 federal charges of wire fraud, falsifying records, campaign finance violations, and conspiracy -- it would have likely been a death knell to the incumbent. But in today's environment it appears to have little sway over Republican voters in California's 50th Congressional District.

That Campa-Najjar, 29, has not pulled away from Hunter — an incumbent facing possible prison time who is waging an anti-Muslim campaign against a Christian opponent — speaks to Trump’s hold on Republican voters, the difficult road to the majority for Democrats and the redness of the district.

At this point, Campa-Najjar is used to questions about his name. Hunter, who has represented the inland San Diego County district in Congress since 2009, is blanketing the airwaves with ads falsely labeling Campa-Najjar a “security risk” who is trying to “infiltrate” Congress.

Hunter’s campaign offensive is centered on Campa-Najjar’s grandfather, who died 16 years before Campa-Najjar was born. Muhammad Yusuf al-Najjar was involved in the 1972 terrorist attack on Israeli athletes in Germany and later assassinated in 1973. Rather than reacting angrily to what he calls the “thinly veiled racism” of Hunter’s attacks, Campa-Najjar offers breezy answers to voters asking about his name and a grandfather he’s forcefully denounced.

A September poll gave Hunter a wide lead but there are some signs the race is narrowing in Campa-Najjar’s favor. A recent Tulchin poll put Campa-Najjar 1 point behind Hunter and the young progressive raised $1.4 million in the third quarter compared to Hunter’s $130,000.

Hunter’s tactics have dominated the contested House race in the final days before a midterm election that Democrats are hopeful will put them in control of the House. The seat was never supposed to be in play. Trump carried it by 15 points in 2016 and Hunter handily won his June primary. Considered the most Republican district in California, Campa-Najjar was written-off as a longshot early on, but Hunter’s indictment in August gave him a boost.

Still, there have been precious few chants from Republicans to “lock him up” in the San Diego County district that stretches north into Temecula. Instead, a number of Republican voters have insisted on due process for the five-term congressman who sold his home to help pay back $60,000 to his campaign for improper charges.

Ammar Campa-Najjar
A photo of Duncan Hunter campaign signs thrown into a dumpster hangs in Democrat Ammar Campa-Najjar's Escondido office.

The question Campa-Najjar poses to voters is: “Do you want a lawbreaker to be our lawmaker?”

“If you believe in law and order, if you’ve ever uttered in your life as a Republican that immigrants come here illegally and they have to get right with the law then you cannot in good conscience, between yourself and your God, vote for Duncan Hunter,” said Campa-Najjar.

But presenting the facts of Hunter’s legal troubles to voters as the Republican saturates the district with false accusations requires a delicate dance. The district is 44 percent Republican. The irony of Hunter’s ads accusing him of terrorism, Campa-Najjar said, is that “Hunter couldn’t get a clearance today.”

“The attack that he’s levying is more true about himself,” said Campa-Najjar, who received a security clearance by the FBI to work in the Obama White House.

When encountering Republicans or undecided voters, Campa-Najjar runs down a checklist to set the record straight. He’s Christian, not Muslim; he’s a native Californian of Mexican and Palestinian descent, and he added Campa (his mother’s maiden name) to his last name to “reveal more of who I am, not less.”

Though voters and fellow Democratic candidates are angry, disgusted and shocked by Hunter’s campaign, Campa-Najjar takes it in stride. Injecting levity into his meetings with constituents, Campa-Najjar simultaneously jokes about his “funny name” and hits Hunter for relying on his father to fight his battles.

“I didn’t inherit anything from my parents except my unfortunate last name,” Campa-Najjar told voters in a wealthy, predominantly white, gated Escondido community. “Duncan Hunter inherited an entire congressional seat.”

Earlier that week, Campa-Najjar went to a “security briefing” convened by Hunter’s father, former Rep. Duncan Hunter Sr., who held the seat for 28 years before his son was elected.

The elder Hunter insisted that the accusations his son is leveling against Campa-Najjar “has nothing to do with race, this has to do with terrorism.”

Days later Campa-Najjar likened the event to a “WWF fight” that ended with him shaking Hunter Sr.’s hand. Sitting in his Escondido field office late at night after a day of media hits and meet and greets, Campa-Najjar described the encounter with Hunter’s father as strange and surreal.

“I wanted him to say it to my face,” Campa-Najjar said of Hunter Sr. “That visual standing up for myself when Hunter Sr. had to stand up for his son basically told voters all they needed to know about me and Hunter.”

After seeing Hunter Sr.'s press conference, Dan Wilson, 55, drove the 40 minutes from his neighboring district to Escondido on a Thursday evening last week to apologize to Campa-Najjar.

“To me Duncan Hunter violates everything that we were taught: judging people by their character and their actions, and not by the color of their skin and their last name,” Wilson, an Army veteran, said in front of the roughly 30 people who’d gathered to meet Campa-Najjar.

Hunter has steered clear of public events, multiple request for the congressman’s press availability went unanswered. Though House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., stripped Hunter of his committee posts following the indictment, Republicans have not called on Hunter to resign and the National Republican Congressional Committee continues to support his campaign.

Campa-Najjar campaigning
Campa-Najjar speaks to voters in Descanso, California on Oct. 21

Many Republicans either ignore the indictment against Hunter citing Trump as their reason for voting for the GOP incumbent, or they believe Hunter’s claim that he mistakenly charged a lavish trip to Italy, a plane ticket for the family rabbit, and dental bills to his campaign account. Hunter and his wife pleaded not guilty.

Roy Register, 83, a Republican who has followed Campa-Najjar’s campaign and has introduced the Democrat to other Republicans, reasoned that Hunter’s attack ads are “just standard American politics.”

Larry Wilske, 58, a retired Navy SEAL, said it’s not about who the candidate is, it’s about who will help Trump’s agenda the most. Wilske, a Republican, likes that Hunter votes in line with Trump, but said the congressman’s removal from key committees won’t help the district.

“If this kid’s going to support the president agenda, I’d drop Hunter like a bad habit,” Wilske said of Campa-Najjar. After listening to the Democrat for two-plus hours, Wilske said the young candidate sounded like a “Reagan conservative” but wanted proof that Campa-Najjar would hire Republicans if elected. “I’ll be undecided until I go into the ballot box,” Wilske concluded.

Though backed by progressive groups like Indivisible and Justice Democrats early on, Campa-Najjar sounds like a centrist on the stump. He’s “not an open borders guy.” He opposes California’s gas tax increase. He argues against sanctuary cities on the premise that immigration and homeland security are the federal government’s responsibility, not a state issue. He wasn’t the Democratic Party’s first choice, something he makes a point of telling Republicans if they’re worried he’ll be a “die in the hole Democrat.” Party leaders in Washington backed Josh Butner, a white retired Navy SEAL in the primary.

“Democrats, the party, they didn’t want me to be the candidate because they thought I was too brown and my name was too foreign,” Campa-Najjar joked, firing up a recent crowd of 30-plus voters in Escondido that he knew included a handful of Republicans.

When former President Barack Obama held his first midterm rally in California for Democratic candidates, Campa-Najjar told the crowd, the DCCC didn’t invite him. Obama’s team told him to come anyway. When Campa-Najjar showed up, he says he was stopped from joining the other candidates in a staging room. Obama greeted Campa-Najjar and asked why he wasn’t included in the prepared remarks provided by handlers.

“You’re one of the reasons we’re here, I’m going to write something up and you’ll come up,” Campa-Najjar recalled Obama saying.

But as Campa-Najjar made his way to the stage he was stopped and told to stay behind a barricade. As Obama stood before activists and party staff, talking about diversity, Campa-Najjar “realized that a black president’s ask was vetoed.” Campa-Najjar shared the anecdote to illustrate to the Republicans and independents in attendance that he isn't a Democratic darling and that both parties can be hypocritical. At the time, the party billed the event as a rally with candidates running in the seven districts Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

“I’ll let you interpret why they did it, but the explanation I got afterward, which sounded more like an alibi, is, ‘We’re doing you a favor.’” Campa-Najjar said of the party.

Days later, following a Washington Examiner email to DCCC asking for comment, Campa-Najjar called to clarify his comments. His relationship with DCCC has gone from a "nonexistent one to an arms-length one" to one that is allowing him to be "in command" of his own campaign, he said.

"It's very clear they want me to win and don't have any reservations, and I welcome their help," Campa-Najjar added. "They're cheering us on."

Weeks ago, the DCCC reached out to Campa-Najjar to put him on their coveted Red to Blue list — he said no thanks. It’s not about flipping a red seat, or a blue wave, said Campa-Najjar. “We’re not running that kind of campaign.”

With days left, he has all the money he needs to counter Hunter, said Campa-Najjar. The race, he contends, isn’t as close as people think. There hasn’t been a poll in weeks as Hunter’s attacks have ramped up. And Campa-Najjar’s campaign is spending more money telling the Democrat’s story.

“Hunter’s continued to shovel the dogshit and I think it’s hurting him, I know it’s hurting him,” said Campa-Najjar, who then turned to his communications director. “Yeah, I said dogshit. What do you want me to say?”

The point, Campa-Najjar said, is “it’s backfiring.”