Blue Wave Threatens GOP’s Surfer Congressman

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe & Doug Jeffe
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Communication, Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, and Doug Jeffe, Communications and Public Affairs Strategist

It appears there is a good chance that Congress’ Surfer-in-Chief is about to be swept up by a big blue wave. In an Orange County district that once was the heart of GOP conservatism, 15-term Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher finds himself on the political endangered species list in the 2018 election.

In many ways, Rep. Rohrabacher is the poster boy for vulnerable Republicans.  Hillary Clinton carried his district over Donald Trump in 2016 by 1.7%.  Democratic registration in the 48th CD is ticking up, although Republicans still hold a ten-point advantage.  The majority of district voters have been to college and almost half are college graduates—a demographic that has been shifting away from President Trump and the GOP.  

The key to victory in the 48th CD will be the No Party Preference (NPP) voters, who now make up roughly one-fourth of the CD 48 electorate.  In California, independent voters tend to lean toward Democratic candidates. The most recent PPIC survey shows that Republicans and Democrats solidly support their own party’s candidate for Congress; Independents, however, are split, with 43% favoring the Democrat, 38% the Republican and a hefty 19% still undecided.

Representing an Orange County coastal district, Rohrabacher is known for his dedication to surfing and for his quirky personality.  A former aide to President Ronald Reagan, the Congressman has established himself as something of an eccentric.

Rohrabacher brings his own baggage to the race, particularly his embrace of all things Russian.  Most recently, he has been prominently associated with Maria Butina, the Russian woman who is being held by federal authorities on charges that she has been a Russian conduit to the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association.   It is doubtful that being labeled “Putin’s favorite Congressman” is going to help Rohrabacher.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether voters—especially the GOP base—are riled up about the Russia-Trump connection or Russian intrusion into American elections. A recent HuffPost/You Gov poll found “Trump’s opponents are notably more vehement than his supporters in their focus on the Russia story… 78 percent of Hillary Clinton voters …view the matter as a legitimate issue…[while] 59 percent of Trump voters… say outright that it’s not.”

In the end, Rohrabacher’s biggest liabilities may be his 15 terms in Congress and the voting record he accrued over them.  In the most recent Public Policy Institute of California statewide survey, 78% of likely voters disapproved and only 18% approved of the job being done by Congress. In addition, the survey showed “Californians tend to distrust government…18 percent of likely voters say you can trust the federal government in Washington to do what is right just about always (3%) or most of the time (15%).”

Although he voted against the GOP tax bill that socked it to California by limiting deductions for state and local taxes, the Congressman has 30 years of votes to defend, including his vote to kill the Affordable Care Act and his status as a climate-change denier.   His Democratic opponent, wealthy businessman Harley Rouda, has no such public voting record to target. And Rouda’s got enough money to make sure Rohrabacher’s constituents grasp the Congressman’s stances. According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ analysis of the most recent FEC data, Rouda is outraising and outspending Rohrabacher, partially because the Democrat is significantly self-funding his campaign.

In the June Primary (with a field of 16 candidates—including 8 Democrats and 6 Republicans), Rohrabacher received just 30.3% of the vote.  Rouda, with 17.3%, eked out a razor thin margin of 125 votes over fellow Democrat Hans Keirstead to take the second spot on the November ballot.  The fourth major candidate in the race, former GOP legislator Scott Baugh, garnered 15.8 %.  Actually, in the June Primary, the total vote for Republican candidates in the CD 48 race was greater than the total number for Democratic candidates. But there is likely to be a higher turnout in November and, generally, Republicans are higher-propensity voters in primaries; Democratic turnout is typically greater in November. There is also the possibility that many Baugh voters will either not vote or cross over to Rouda.

In a “normal” year, Rohrabacher would be heavily favored—he got 58 % of the vote in 2016, even as Donald Trump narrowly lost this traditionally Republican district.  This, however, isn’t a “normal” election season and most of the indicators point to a national Democratic wave.  The 48th CD is the kind of district Democrats will need to win if they are going to catch a wave and surf to a U.S. House majority.

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