FOUNTAIN VALLEY, CALIF. — As Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) delivered a somber tribute to fallen soldiers at a local Memorial Day event Monday, his old political ally turned primary foe fidgeted in his seat just 20 feet away, applauding as appropriate for the troops. Rohrabacher and former Orange County Chairman Scott Baugh (R), a onetime Rohrabacher acolyte, failed to greet one another at the small gathering, ignoring each other like estranged brothers at a family funeral.
Baugh’s late entrance into the “jungle primary,” where the top two primary candidates face off in the general election regardless of party, upended both Rohrabacher’s reelection plans and Democrats’ hopes to take Rohrabacher down. If Baugh makes it to the general election runoff against Rohrabacher, that ends Democrats’ hopes of flipping a seat that’s key to seizing a House majority — and puts Rohrabacher in even more danger of losing reelection. Both sides are pulling out all the stops to block Baugh, and things have grown steadily more acrimonious ahead of next week’s June 5 primary.
“Ambition beat out gratitude in terms of Scott Baugh’s decision-making,” Rohrabacher groused to TPM as he exited the VFW event, attacking Baugh as a lobbyist who holds “skewed values where gratitude means nothing.”
The bad blood comes after decades of coziness between the two men. Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and surfing-loving right-wing hardliner, played a role in helping Baugh win his state assembly seat in the mid-1990s. They also worked closely together for the decade that Baugh spent as the Orange County GOP chairman.
Baugh downplays their friendship. “It’s probably more accurate to say Dana and I were political allies in the same political family … we were never close friends,” he told TPM during a Wednesday interview at his Newport Beach law office.
But others who know the two men well say that’s an understatement.
“They were very, very close friends,” former Huntington Beach Mayor Joe Carchio (R), who’s backing Baugh, told TPM at Huntington Beach’s Memorial Day ceremony.
Baugh insists that Rohrabacher told him in early 2016 that he wouldn’t run in 2018 in a meeting at that same office to hash out both of their future plans — claims that two other local Republicans who attended and now back Baugh corroborate, including one who published an account of that meeting long before the two men came into conflict. Rohrabacher said he was much less definitive during the meeting and told Baugh soon after that he had plans to run again, something Baugh denies.
Whatever the case may be, Baugh’s last-minute entrance into the race in early March scrambled both Rohrabacher’s and Democrats’ plans. A number of Democrats were already months into campaigns for the seat, seeing an opening in a historically conservative upscale district of beach communities that Hillary Clinton narrowly carried in 2016 given Rohrabacher’s ties to Russia (they run so deep that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) famously joked behind closed doors that “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump”).
Because of California’s unusual jungle primary system, Baugh is a real threat to push past the crowded field of Democrats and face Rohrabacher in the fall.
If he does so, Democrats are already down one district in their fight for 218 House seats — and Rohrabacher likely faces an even stiffer uphill battle for reelection since Baugh likely has more appeal to independents than the idiosyncratic three-decade incumbent. The district is one of four potentially winnable California seats where Democrats have serious fears they won’t get a single candidate in the general election — and the one they’re most worried about heading into Tuesday.
“It is a concern. The jungle primary here has so many machinations that go into the calculus,” Harley Rouda, one of the three Democrats in the race and the one most strategists think has the best chance of getting through to the general election, told TPM. “The challenge is, the more Baugh takes from Rohrabacher the more we need to consolidate the Democratic vote behind us.”
Polling from the campaigns show Baugh and Rouda are neck-and-neck, with medical scientist Hans Keirstead (D) not too far behind. Rohrabacher is well ahead of the field — but bleeding significant support from Republicans, a rarity for an incumbent that shows potential weakness for the general election.
Democrats know how much of a threat a Rohrabacher-Baugh matchup is. Two candidates dropped out shortly after Baugh jumped in and threw their support to Rouda to try to avoid that exact scenario. The local Indivisible group and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have backed him as well, though Keirstead got the California Democratic Party’s endorsement early on in the race.
Republicans would obviously love to see Democrats get shut out in the key district. But they worry that the nasty ongoing fight between the two men could hurt Rohrabacher this fall if a Democrat does get through.
“Baugh’s challenge to a Republican Party-endorsed candidate … has damaged the incumbent, and I’m very disappointed,” California state Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R), a Rohrabacher supporter, told TPM.
Baugh and Rohrabacher have been closely linked ever since Baugh’s first foray into politics, which Rohrabacher strongly encouraged. Baugh was accused of recruiting a dummy Democratic candidate to split the Democratic vote with a better-liked opponent in that 1995 race. Top local GOP activist Rhonda Carmony pleaded guilty to two felony counts in relation to that scandal (they were immediately downgraded to misdemeanors) — shortly after marrying Rohrabacher (she’s currently her husband’s campaign manager as well). Baugh eventually agreed to pay a civil fine of almost $50,000 for nine violations of the state Political Reform Act, after a four-year investigation into a political misconduct case (earlier perjury and campaign finance reporting charges against him were dismissed).
Democrats have jumped on that scandal. The House Majority PAC and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have made a huge investment in the race’s closing weeks. Panicked about being shut out in the general election, they have spent nearly $3 million combined against Baugh, including TV ads and mailers using the scandal to paint him as a crook.
Baugh pushed back against those ads, calling them “smear attacks that lack any kind of context” and saying he’d been the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Rohrabacher’s team has also gone hard after Baugh in campaign mailers, painting him as soft on immigration and slamming his work advising a chain of sober living facilities, potentially effective attacks in a district where anti-immigration sentiment and NIMBYism are potent forces with GOP voters (the types parodied in Arrested Development — the original banana stands are in the district on Balboa Island, not far from a statue of Ronald Reagan that sits on private property).
Baugh has responded with attacks on Rohrabacher, painting him as an absentee congressman. And while he’s questioned Rohrabacher’s focus on Russia, he argued it’s more because Rohrabacher has chosen to focus on those issues than those important to the district.
“It’s not so much his views of Russia, it’s his preoccupation of it to the exclusion of the issues that matter in the district. He’s taken 172 trips in his 30 years, that’s 5-6 trips a year for each year in office,” he said. “The people may or may not care about Russia. They do care about the airplane noise, they do care about the sober living homes.”
For his part, Rohrabacher dismissed questions about his Russia views as “fake news.”
“Even my detractors in this race don’t mention Russia too much. Scott said ‘Moscow and marijuana’ in one of his ads. But my people know I’m a patriot and they know everything I do is based on what’s good for the United States of America and while we face radical Islam my advocacy that we could cooperate with Russia to defeat radical Islam is very well understood by these people,” he said.
Democrats are hopeful they can get through a candidate. But they admit they’re worried it might not happen.
“In regards to the jungle primary, I’m absolutely concerned,” Dennis Bress, a local Indivisible activist and early Rouda backer, told TPM. “I’m scared shitless.”
Correction: Rhonda Carmony was not Baugh’s campaign manager during his 1995 campaign, as the original version of this story mistakenly reported.