LOS ANGELES—After facing 14 other candidates for the chance to take on Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in California’s 48th Congressional District midterm election, Democrat Harley Rouda squeaked by with 125 votes.
While Democrats saw Rouda as the best candidate for November, the “D” next his name matters more than who he is—because this race isn’t about Rouda. It’s about Rohrbacher.
“Whoever is on the other side of Dana Rohrabacher in the general election—be it Rouda, [Democrat candidate Hans] Keirstead, or [Republican candidate Scott] Baugh—it’s going to be a favorite... because of Rohrabacher’s weakness in the district,” a Democratic strategist working on California House races said. “The 48th should be the safest district for Republicans in Orange County, but like right now, looking at the map, it is one of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats.”
Rouda will be the first Democrat to be backed by the national party in this district since it was redrawn in 2012. Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) didn’t spend a single cent there in the last two cycles.
Now it is all in, spending more than $1.6 million to defeat Baugh and $400,000 in support of Rouda in a joint ad buy. The DCCC also spent $110,000 propping up Republican John Gabbard in the election’s final stretch in an effort to split the GOP vote.
After winning 15 elections and 30 years in Congress, Rohrabacher has never been weaker. The Cook Political report calls the race a “Republican Toss Up,” and his 56.6 percent he won in the 2016 primary is a far cry from the 30.5 percent voters he got this year. His long-standing ties with Russia—like being considered an intel source to the Kremlin and dining with central bank executive Alexander Torshin—have painted him as someone out of touch with the district at best. At worst, he could be seen as an asset to the Kremlin. He also faces a district that is changing, with an increase in minorities and an electorate that is abandoning typical “suburban” tendencies to lean more conservative.
“He has had tough races before, but he’s never been in a fight like he is now,” said professor Zev Yaroslavsky, former Los Angeles County supervisor who now teaches political science and history at UCLA. “I don’t think most people in the 48th Congressional District think that Russians are our friend, so I think he’s bought himself a real race here.”
While Rohrabacher has dismissed his Russia connections, saying that his “constituents couldn’t care less about this,” he won’t be able to ignore it in November. Rouda plans on using Rohrabacher’s years of hobnobbing with Russia to his advantage.
“Rohrabacher being enamored with relationships with Russia and spending so much time on the agenda that is important to Putin and Russia—when that’s put into the context of what is that doing to create jobs here in Southern California, what is that doing to making families safer, making their schools better… The answer is a resounding no,” Rouda said. “He's a highly vulnerable based on just that fact.”
Now all the Democrats need Rouda to do is to attract the Republicans in his district, or at least enough to win. The campaign plans to strike a balance policy-wise in order to get their votes—like supporting a path to citizenship for Dreamers while backing the use of drones to strengthen the border, or calling the National Rifle Association “extremists” while standing by the Second Amendment.
A blue seat in the House hangs in the balance and will no doubt draw eyes and dollar signs to the race. Despite talk of Rohrabacher’s frailties, Rouda can expect a big fight in November.
“[Rohrabacher] is a guy who has a lot of issue baggage on him that he’ll have to defend himself on, [but] he’s not going to back down,” said Yaroslavsky. “In any case, it’s not going to be a landslide. It’s going to be a close race where every vote counts.”
Rohrabacher’s office did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.