Democratic congressional campaigns have largely shied away from using Russia as a campaign issue in 2018. But in one California district, Democrats and Republicans are teaming up in an effort to essentially put Russian President Vladimir Putin on the ballot.
The candidates trying to un-seat Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) in the 48th congressional district are running explicitly anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin campaigns. Rohrabacher is among the dozens of GOP incumbents that Democrats are aiming to defeat in what they hope could be a blue wave in November.
But Rohrabacher, who has served for 15 terms in Congress, isn’t your average Republican. He has long expressed a fondness for Putin and has routinely defended the Kremlin—and has consistently been re-elected anyway. But at a time when U.S.-Russia relations are hitting a new low, his opponents believe voters will reconsider Rohrabacher’s loyalties.
“While every district and elected office is somewhat affected by what’s going on with the Russia situation and the potential collusion or no collusion between Trump and Russia, this district is different because we have a member of Congress who has a long and inglorious history working with and on behalf of better relations for Russia, and at times it’s looked a bit unseemly,” Harley Rouda, a Democratic businessman challenging Rohrabacher, said in an interview.
On a national level, Democrats don’t view that as a winning strategy. They plan to instead zero in on issues, mostly economic ones, that affect voters more directly. But Rouda, who has secured the endorsements of lawmakers who represent southern California, is running an unconventional campaign focused almost exclusively on highlighting Rohrabacher’s record on Russia. The campaign put together a digital ad titled, “Represent us, not Russia,” in which Rouda accuses Rohrabacher of “siding with Vladimir Putin over America’s interests.” His campaign also commissioned a poll which showed that Putin has an 87 percent disapproval rating in the district.
Rohrabacher also has two Republican challengers, one of whom is employing a similar Russia-focused strategy as Rouda’s campaign. Billing himself as a moderate Republican in the guise of John McCain and John Kasich, Paul Martin has branded his entire campaign as an anti-Kremlin effort. Martin attended PutinCon, an anti-Putin conference, in New York last month, and he plans on hosting a various “Putin events” in Orange County as part of his crusade to tie Rohrabacher to the Russian president. Martin also won the endorsement of Bill Browder, who led congressional efforts on the Magnitsky Act which punishes Russian human-rights violators.
“I’m the only candidate in this race making this the single greatest issue. I’m certainly the only Republican in the race even talking about it,” Martin said in an interview. “Generally speaking, they are not concerned [about Russia]. They are concerned with jobs, very high housing costs, and kitchen-table issues. But as they learn about Russia, as they learn about Dana, they are starting to pay great attention.”
Although Martin isn’t a Democrat, California’s so-called “jungle” primary on June 5 will push the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party, leaving him on the same playing field as the eight Democrats vying for that second spot to challenge Rohrabacher. Martin’s goal, he says, is to elevate the Russia issue to the front of voters’ minds—no matter the electoral cost.
“I don’t care if it backfires on me. This is an issue of national security and it’s an issue of human rights, and I will not capitulate to politically correct issues or strategies,” Martin said. “The voters here need to know about Russia, about Putin’s new kind of warfare that he’s waging on America and other western countries.”
Foreign-policy issues rarely resonate in congressional races, especially in a midterm year. Candidates often focus on economic arguments surrounding taxes, trade policy and jobs. While Democrats don’t plan to use Russia as a wedge issue to defeat Republican incumbents, they’ve brought it to the forefront as part of their efforts to defeat Rohrabacher and, more broadly, to make the 2018 elections a referendum on President Donald Trump. They’re confident that a localized, anti-Putin campaign will work in Orange County.
“Because he’s never run in a competitive race, his record has never been actually litigated. He’s been in the news far more over the last 15 months than he has ever been in his entire career,” said a California Democratic strategist who requested anonymity due to involvement in House races. The strategist defended the idea of using Russia in that race, calling it a “useful catalyst” to call attention to a trove of controversial statements and policy positions in Rohrabacher’s past.
Rohrabacher is trying to avoid the issue entirely. He told The New York Times last year that his constituents are more concerned with taxes and illegal immigration than with Russia. But that might be impossible for the California Republican, who has been interviewed by congressional investigators as part of the probes into Russian election-meddling and possible collusion with Trump associates.
Rohrabacher met last year with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and sought to brief Trump on his chief conclusion from the meeting: that Russia was not behind the hacked Democratic National Committee emails that WikiLeaks published during the 2016 campaign. That assertion contradicts the findings of the U.S. intelligence community. Last month, Rohrabacher attended a fundraising event on his behalf hosted by Erik Prince, the Blackwater founder who is facing scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team over an alleged attempt to set up a back-channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. A representative for Rohrabacher did not respond to a request for comment about the fundraiser.
“The love of Russia by Comrade Rohrabacher is an issue here locally,” Rouda said, not missing an opportunity to tie his opponent to the Russian leader. “But there are other local issues like jobs and infrastructure and homelessness and health care which are all important to the constituents here as well, and we are certainly trying to address all of those issues in a way that Rohrabacher has failed to do for many years.”
National Democrats, with the exception of a few, have largely avoided making Russia the focal point of their campaigns to defeat Republican incumbents by tying them to Trump, despite the president’s similar deferential posturing toward Putin. Polling data has shown that Americans will vote in November based on health care, the economy, taxes, and immigration, suggesting that they’ll look to Democratic challengers to propose viable solutions on those issues. But in California’s 48th district, Democrats argue it would be a mistake to not take the bait on Rohrabacher’s Russia record.
“In the end, all politics is local. Obviously focusing on jobs and the economy and on issues that are critical to people may be a better strategy anywhere else, but this is a congressman who’s tied to and supportive of the Putin regime in Russia,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s definitely going to be a much bigger issue in this district than anywhere else—it may not even be an issue anywhere else. In most other places, it won’t be.”