Democrats line up to take on ‘Putin’s favorite congressman’

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent

 

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., after receiving a “Spirit of Enterprise” award from the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce on July 21, 2017. (Photo: Costa Mesa Brief video)

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — On a recent Friday morning, Dana Rohrabacher, the colorful Republican congressman who has represented a ritzy sliver of Southern California coastline for nearly 30 years, slipped quietly onto the green, lakefront grounds of the Newport Beach Chamber of Commerce in a blue blazer, blue baseball cap and blue Tommy Bahama-style shirt to accept the Chamber’s “Spirit of Enterprise” award.

The crowd was genteel: Orange County executives in suits, shades and heels. The applause was polite. Yet as Rohrabacher, 70, name-checked his old boss Ronald Reagan and praised America’s “spirit of unity,” a dozen progressive protesters on the other side of the lake began to wave signs and shout.

“PUTIN’S FAVORITE PUPPET,” one sign read.

“The smell of treason is in the air,” read another.

“There are two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” read a third, quoting House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, one of Rohrabacher’s fellow California Republicans.

“Hey Dana, what do you say?” the activists chanted. “How many rubles did you get today!”

Finally, Rohrabacher had had enough. “I’m sorry those people there believe they have the right to disrupt other people’s rights to assemble,” he snapped, gesturing across the water. “I’ll try to speak very loudly.”

For decades, Rohrabacher has effectively drowned out the opposition, outspending each of his rivals by hundreds of thousands of dollars — and winning reelection 14 times by an average margin of 22 percentage points.

But those days may be coming to an end. As Rohrabacher addressed his Chamber of Commerce friends, stem-cell researcher and self-described “serial entrepreneur” Hans Keirstead — one of seven local Democrats running against Rohrabacher in 2018 — was a mile down the road, at the gleaming headquarters of Aivita, his latest biomedical company, explaining why this cycle will be different.

Stem-cell researcher Hans Keirstead, a top recruit of Democrats looking to unseat Rep. Rohrabacher, at the Irvine, Calif., headquarters of his company Aivita Biomedical. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

“People are paying attention,” Keirstead said. “I would not have entered the race if I did not think I was going to win it, and Congressman Rohrabacher’s vulnerability was certainly part of that. He’s been a staunch defender and advocate of things that are kind of wacky and not on the radar screen of the constituents here — and that includes his longstanding advocacy for Russia.”

Keirstead glanced out the window. “Never has he been dissected so,” he said. “Never has he been challenged so.”

*****

At first glance, Dana Rohrabacher doesn’t seem like one of the most vulnerable House Republicans. Last November, he defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 16 percentage points, and registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 10 points in his district, California’s 48th, which stretches from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach and includes some of California’s whitest, wealthiest and most traditionally Republican towns. In fact, Orange County has long been known as the birthplace of the conservative movement.

But several factors are suddenly weakening Rohrabacher’s hold on the 48th, and even the congressman acknowledges that he won’t be able to coast to victory this time around.

“Donald Trump did not win in this district, and that has given Democrats hope that I will be vulnerable,” Rohrabacher tells Yahoo News. “I’m not taking this for granted. I never take anything for granted.”

The first factor working against Rohrabacher is simple math: while Republicans still enjoy a local registration advantage, it has shrunk by nearly a third over the last 20 years as area voters who’ve become disenchanted with the national party’s direction and discouraged by the state party’s decline flee the GOP and reregister as Democrats or independents.

The second factor is Donald Trump, who consistently underperforms among the sort of wealthy, well-educated Republicans who exemplify Orange County conservatism. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Hillary Clinton won the O.C. in 2016 — a first for a Democrat — or that in the neighboring 49th District, retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate, another Democrat, finished a mere 1,621 votes behind his entrenched Republican rival, Darrell Issa. There are four House Republicans whose districts overlap with Orange County — and all four now rank among the top 25 most vulnerable GOP incumbents in the country. In fact, election prognosticator Larry Sabato recently moved CA-48 from “lean Republican” to “tossup,” citing Trump, “changes in the district and the quirkiness of the incumbent himself.”

That brings us to the third factor jeopardizing Rohrabacher’s job: Russia. With several probes into Russian election interference now underway, new information seems to surface daily about the Trump campaign’s possible coziness with the Kremlin — and the only Washington politician who appears to be even cozier with the Kremlin than Trump is Rohrabacher.

Rohrabacher, right, during his 1988 visit to Afghanistan. (Photo: Robert Lachman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

This isn’t exactly breaking news. After winning his congressional seat in 1988 but before taking office, Rohrabacher joined the Afghan civil war, spending some time with a unit of AK-47-wielding mujahideen assigned to take out a Soviet position near Jalalabad. He soon realized that, as a young Republican, he had been “fighting communism all this time” — but not the “Russians” themselves.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Rohrabacher made it his mission to “ease the way for Russia to embrace democracy,” as a recent Los Angeles Times report put it, and he has spent the last three decades unapologetically “meeting with Russian politicians, carrying Russian-related legislation and advocating for the country and against U.S. sanctions” — an approach that has earned him the nickname “Putin’s favorite congressman.” (Rohrabacher got to know Putin, then the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, while drunkenly arm-wrestling him over who actually won the Cold War.)

Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia stance has attracted a fair share of controversy — especially in recent months, as concerns over election meddling have intensified. Rohrabacher has defended Michael Flynn, Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser. He has dismissed claims of Russian human rights abuses as “baloney.” He met with and then accepted a $1,000 donation from former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was lobbying on behalf of a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine at the time. He tried to travel to Moscow shortly after President Trump’s inauguration but was stopped by his fellow California Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. (Royce also scuttled Rohrabacher’s plan last year to screen a pro-Russia film in Congress.)

In April, Rohrabacher met in Berlin with Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who was present at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr. In May, the New York Times reported that the FBI once warned Rohrabacher of efforts by Russian spies to recruit him. And just this week, a complaint was filed with the Treasury Department accusing Rohrabacher and his former staff director Paul Behrends of violating U.S. sanctions when they accepted anti-Magnitsky Act material from the Russian prosecutor’s office and used it to try to undermine the legislation in Washington.

Rohrabacher disputes that Russia will hurt him in 2018, even as he concedes that his views are controversial. “My constituents will not be bought off by what Trump calls ‘fake news’ — this onslaught of story after story about how heinous some aspect of Russia is,’” Rohrabacher tells Yahoo News. “But there are a number of people who are going to totally disagree with me and the president that we should in any way cooperate with the Russians. I believe my constituents will vote for cooperation — but we’ll see.”

Finally, and most importantly, there are Rohrabacher’s rivals to consider. Before now, the congressman had only faced two serious challengers. In next June’s open primary, however, Rohrabacher is set to compete against at least three top-notch opponents, if not more — including one, Keirstead, who is described by a Democrat with knowledge of the race as “among top Democratic recruits nationwide this cycle.” Laguna Beach lawyer and real-estate entrepreneur Harley Rouda has raised $318,334 to date; Newport Beach architect Laura Oatman has raised $119,399; and Keirstead has raised $138,504, despite declaring a mere two weeks before the end of the second quarter. With 16 months to go before Election Day, the field already includes seven Democrats, one Republican and one independent. No other congressional race has attracted that many candidates.

Democratic candidate Harley Rouda. (Photo: harleyforcongress.com)

The result could be the most telling contest of 2018. According to a June 21 Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee memo, Republicans now hold a negligible (1 percent) edge in congressional party preference in the 48th District, and a majority of voters there (51 percent) disapprove of Trump’s job performance. If Democrats want a preview of what could happen to a Russia-tarnished Trump in 2020, particularly among mainstream Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in key suburban districts — and if they want to know which issues and candidates resonate with that pivotal segment of the electorate — there may be no better place to look than Dana Rohrabacher’s backyard.

*****

Given the recent headlines, Rohrabacher’s top challengers aren’t shy about mentioning Putin & Co.

“Absolutely,” Rouda tells Yahoo News when asked whether Rohrabacher’s relationship with Russia will be an issue in the general election.

“It can’t help but trickle down to Rohrabacher,” Oatman says. “It’s hard to keep up with the news, honestly. Every day there’s a new story about him.”

“With special counsel Bob Mueller’s broadening reach, I think we’re going to hear more about Rohrabacher’s involvement,” Keirstead says. “I would really encourage Congressman Rohrabacher to come clean on everything. Let it all out. Because it’s coming.”

Still, all three insist — and Democratic strategists agree — that voters in the district may wind up caring less about the ins and outs of the ongoing investigations than about what Rohrabacher’s Russia obsession implies: a lack of attention, they say, to more pressing local worries.

“It’s clearly a big issue for Democrats,” says Rouda. “But it’s less of an issue as we sit here right now for Republicans and independents — except in the sense that they’re starting to wonder why Rohrabacher spends so much time, effort, energy and resources on behalf of Putin and Russia rather than focusing those assets on helping the constituents of the 48th district.”

Architect turned Democratic candidate Laura Oatman and her dog Gracie at a café near her home in Newport Beach, Calif. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

When asked to name a constituent concern that Rohrabacher is overlooking, Keirstead, Rouda and Oatman all singled out the same issue: climate change. A national Yale/George Mason University poll showed that three in four independents (or 74 percent, up 15 percentage points since spring 2014) and nearly as many liberal or moderate Republicans (71 percent, up 10 points) believe that climate change is happening; private polling shows a similar dynamic at work in CA-48. The hope for Democrats is that climate change (and environmental issues in general) could help drive a wedge between the incumbent — who once joked that “dinosaur flatulence” may have cause global warming — and moderate coastal voters.

“People here are well-educated,” Oatman said. “They know climate change is real. It’s science. It’s not a religion. It’s not a Chinese hoax. And we could potentially be impacted by that a lot sooner than we think. If we’ve got a climate change denier in office who’s not addressing that in any way, shape or form … he’s kind of in his own world.”

As part of a national wave of rookie Democratic candidates inspired to run by the so-called “resistance” to Trump, Keirstead, Rouda and Oatman tout their lack of political experience as a plus. Keirstead is the scientist-CEO who’s trying to cure cancer and run a startup at the same time; he would, he says, help to remedy Congress’s “deficit” of health care experts, assuming a lead role in the fight to improve Obamacare. Rouda is the Republican turned Democrat who broke with the Orange County business community to renounce his parents’ political party — and who believes he can bring other Republicans along. And Oatman is the architect turned mother of five turned resistance activist; she thinks her training as a problem solver — both at work and at home — would help her represent “everybody who lives here in Orange County, whether you’re from Spyglass Hill or Balboa Island.”

Each Democrat is careful not to alienate conservatives — a necessary precaution in a red district where recruiting first-time Democratic voters is key. Keirstead likes to describe himself as “fiscally and socially responsible,” and he openly admits that his views are “a little edgy for the Democratic Party.” (He wants Congress to crack down on Medicaid cheats and scrap Obamacare’s upper-income tax hikes.) Rouda points out that “the vast majority” of Americans “want to see their government provide the appropriate services and support for its citizens — and they also want to see that everything is properly paid for.” And even Oatman, who got her start in politics by founding a postelection Facebook group called Orange County Progressives, doesn’t embrace Bernie-Sanders-style liberalism.

“The term progressive can mean the far-left wing of the Democratic Party, but in my mind it was about progress — people moving forward,” Oatman explains. “You need to be able to listen to everybody, not just those who are going to vote for you or donate to you. And I think the key to that is trying to stay away from labels as much as possible.”

Rohrabacher sings a song he wrote entitled “God Bless Our Freedom” while giving a tour of his Rayburn Building office to Roll Call. (Photo: Tom Williams/Roll Call)

None of which means that Rohrabacher is doomed. Far from it. The power of incumbency is real. The congressman currently has more cash on hand than Keirstead, Rouda and Oatman combined. A former folksinger, longtime surfer, aspiring screenwriter and early proponent of marijuana legalization, he won’t be easily pigeonholed as a Trump clone. And finally, he knows from his time as a Reagan speechwriter how to convey a kind of avuncular, plainspoken charm on the trail. (Exhibit A: the rest of Rohrabacher’s Chamber of Commerce remarks, which touch on his “keep it simple, stupid” proposals for tax and health care reform.)

“These rich liberal Democrats who think that because they live in a gated community and I live in a little house in Costa Mesa that they’re speaking for our district — no, I don’t think they know what this district is about,” Rohrabacher says, noting that he used to go “surfing down at the Wedge in high school.” “They think of me as being this hard-right conservative with all the stereotypes of what they consider that to be. But I have a Ronald Reagan positive conservatism, and that is what has guided me.”

Even so, Orange County Democrats are “on fire,” as Oatman puts it. “There are at least 10 to 20 secret women’s groups — that I know of — that have started since Trump’s election,” she says. “These are mostly registered Republicans. And they are looking to flip these seats.”

“The close result last time in the 49th was a beacon of hope for all of us,’” adds Rouda. “It helped us to understand that, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”

In that spirit, resistance groups such as Indivisible OC 48 are putting an unprecedented amount of pressure on Rohrabacher — and it seems to be getting under his skin.

“Your organization acts like a bunch of fascists,” Rohrabacher growled in June when an Indivisible member “served” him with an invitation to the group’s Aug. 1 town hall, which he promptly threw to the ground. (The congressman hasn’t participated in any live town halls with his constituents since the election.)

Members of Indivisible OC-48 marched to Rohrabacher’s Huntington Beach office on Feb. 14, 2017, to deliver Valentine cards asking him to hold a town hall meeting. (Photo: Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register via ZUMA Wire)

The question now is whether Rohrabacher can regain his composure in time for next year’s election — or whether Democrats can continue to keep him off balance.

“This is a first,” says Keirstead. “Rohrabacher has a tremendous amount of marketing presence because his name has been around so long. But this will be the first time his viewpoints have ever really been looked at. It’s the first time he’s had a serious, properly resourced challenger whose views reflect the district. I think we will prevail.”

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