No Democrat has ever won a seat in California’s 48th congressional district.
The seat is currently occupied by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an idiosyncratic pro-Trump Republican with a libertarian streak, known for his love of surfing, marijuana reform and Russia. Rohrabacher has represented the area, which runs along the state’s sunny southern coastline, for 30 years.
But Democratic businessman Harley Rouda has run a surprisingly strong campaign against Rohrabacher, casting him as a dinosaur who represents all that is wrong with U.S. politics in the Trump era, from corruption to murky ties to Russia and far-right extremists.
The race is rated a tossup by Cook Political Report, and it’s one of the several California House races, in districts Hillary Clinton won, where Republicans are struggling to hold serve and which Democrats see as key to retaking the House majority.
“I still hold up this shred of optimism that the district is red enough and that Dana is resilient enough that he squeaks it out,” a GOP operative familiar with the campaign told TPM.
But Rohrabacher’s campaign has been, in a word, “weak,” the operative said.
Rohrabacher’s team did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The California Republican has faced few serious Democratic challengers over his decades in Congress. Per Ballotpedia, with the exception of 2008, Rohrabacher has won every race by margins of 15 points or more.
But Rouda, 55, has proved to be a formidable opponent. The few surveys conducted of the race show them tied or trading small single digits leads back and forth. Rouda also has a major fundraising advantage, pulling in some $6,771,526 compared to $2,397,848 for Rohrabacher, per the most recent FEC numbers.
The Rouda campaign’s message is simple: it’s time for a change. He’s quick to remind voters that Rohrabacher, 71, has only passed three bills during his time on Capitol Hill, and has refused to hold in-person town halls. He says that Rohrabacher’s positions on social issues—like his recent claim that people should be able to refuse to sell their homes to gay people—are outdated, and his ardently pro-Russian foreign policy positions do nothing to help voters in the district.
Rouda communications director Jack d’Annibale said the Democratic nominee will steer a more moderate path for the district, backed by a coalition of first-time young voters, Democrats, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and disaffected conservatives.
“We’re getting lot of support form those voters even here in Orange County, where Ronald Reagan said good Republicans come to die,” d’Annibale told TPM.
Rouda “supports mainstream, centrist positions, and believes Democrats need to take back the House to provide a check and balance on Donald Trump.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on the district’s deep-red roots, and on Rohrabacher’s enduring position in the local political fabric. They expect that the entrepreneurs, real estate magnates, and oil and gas workers who populate the predominantly white, affluent beach communities of Newport Beach and Fountain Valley still want the kind of conservative leadership Rohrabacher represents.
Matt Cunningham, a GOP strategist who worked on the campaign of Rohrabacher’s primary rival Scott Baugh, called the race a “battle royale” and said Rohrabacher is “running harder than he probably has since 1988.”
“But I think at this point, Dana retains the edge,” Cunningham said. “At its heart it’s a red district, and Republican enthusiasm matches Democratic enthusiasm now.”
Republican California State Assemblyman Matt Harper agreed that the “huge enthusiasm across the board” from voters was a boon for Rohrabacher, given the 10-point registration advantage for Republicans in the district.
“We were introduced to Dana Rohrabacher as a speechwriter for President Reagan,” Harper told TPM. “He’s been a fixture of politics in our Huntington Beach coastal area long before anyone ever thought of Donald Trump in a political context.”
Unlike other Republicans running in competitive midterms races, Rohrabacher has not hugged Trump closely. But one common issue for the two Republicans is their favorable stance towards Russia. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) once joked that he believes Rohrabacher, who has been dubbed “Putin’s favorite congressman,” is one of “two people I think Putin pays.” The other was the president.
As far back as 2012, the FBI warned Rohrabacher that the Kremlin considered him such a valuable intelligence asset that he merited his own code name. Rohrabacher has downplayed Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and said “there’s not a person in” Washington, D.C. who wouldn’t have accepted a meeting with Russians promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, as the Trump campaign did. He attended a dinner with alleged Russian agent Mariia Butina in 2017.
The Rouda campaign has gone after Rohrabacher’s Russia ties in ads. But the GOP operative close to the campaign called it a “non-issue,” saying voters who “don’t like Dana think he’s a Russian agent” anyway, while those who do like him found the topic “meaningless” to them personally.
Rohrabacher’s coziness with Russia overlaps with his willingness to embrace those on the furthest fringes of the right. The Republican lawmaker traveled to London with far-right blogger and Holocaust denier Chuck Johnson last year to meet with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Rohrabacher also recently endorsed a Republican candidate for a local school board, Gracey Van Der Mark, who is a close associate of the local Proud Boys chapter and of attendees of the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. He spoke at a Make America Great Again rally in Huntington Beach last year that descended into chaos after members of the violent neo-Nazi Rise Above Movement assaulted counter-protesters.
“My concern with Congressman Rohrabacher is rooted in the fact that he has very close ties to alt-right extremists who are anti-Semitic Holocaust deniers, xenophobic, all-purpose bigots,” Gina Clayton-Tarvin, a Democrat trustee on the Ocean View School District board and vocal local activist, told TPM.
Like Harley Rouda, Clayton-Tarvin used to be a Republican. She still endorses GOP politicians for local races when she thinks they have the right “character.”
Rohrabacher’s closing pitch to Orange County voters is that they’re well acquainted with his character, and like it.
“You know who I am,” the incumbent said at the campaign’s first and only debate in mid-October. “And sadly my opponent, you don’t know who he is.”