Thirty-year GOP incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is tied with Democratic challenger Harley Rouda in Orange County’s coastal 48th Congressional District heading into the Nov. 6 general election, according to a New York Times poll.
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“I see a close race and I think Rouda has a legitimate shot at this. I never would have guessed this two years ago because Rohrabacher has always won,” said elections expert and Chapman University professor Mike Moodian in a Sept. 7 phone interview.
Rouda, who’s never held an elected office before, is a businessman who deals with mobile app companies.
The Sep. 6 poll, which surveyed 500 registered voters in the coastal district, found Rohrabacher and Rouda each had the support of 45 percent of voters, while 10 percent are undecided.
But Rohrabacher campaign spokesman Dale Neugebauer said the poll shows that the Rouda campaign has a lot of work to do.
“Almost 60 percent of voters (58 percent said they ‘don’t know’ when asked about the favorability of Rouda) have no impression of Harley Rouda and when they catch a whiff of him, they’re going to run away,” Neugebauer said in a phone interview.
In the poll, 37 percent of the people said they disapprove of Rohrabacher’s handling of “Russia-related issues,” while 29 percent said they approve and 33 percent didn’t have an opinion. The 15-term Congressman is one of the strongest defenders of Russia.
“There’s no evidence that voters here, other than partisans on one side, really care about that issue. They understand that Dana (Rohrabacher) has been on the foreign affairs committee his entire time in Congress,” Neugebauer said. “I think most of them appreciate that it’s been in America’s best interest, even though they may be an adversary, to have a constructive dialogue with other countries, including Russia … without having to result to military action.”
California GOP spokesman Matt Fleming said news media mostly raises the Rohrabacher-Russia issue.
“Most of the time it comes up, it comes up in the media. That’s not a knock on the media,” said Fleming in a phone interview. “His (Rohrabacher) views towards Russia have been very consistent for a very long time. He came up under (President Ronald) Reagan and he believes in working together with Russia.”
But Rouda campaign spokesman Jack D’Annibale said Rohrabacher is “out of touch” with constituents in the district and the voters want a leadership change.
“He’s (Rouda) not a career politician who has spent 30 years like Rohrabacher, taking orders from special interests” like the National Rifle Association, D’Annibale said. “He failed time and time again to bring federal investment home to Orange County … whether its infrastructure, whether its addressing the homeless crises in Orange County, whether it’s having a real plan to deal with local issues.”
Neugebauer said the poll favors Republicans on some issues.
According to the poll, 48 percent of people oppose NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, while 43 percent support it and nine percent don’t have an opinion.
But that finding is ambiguous because a separate question asks “do you support or oppose the right of N.F.L. players to kneel in protest during the national anthem?” More people supported that at 56 percent, while 37 percent opposed it and seven percent had no opinion.
On another issue, 50 percent of people polled disagreed that President Donald Trump is “draining the swamp and reducing Washington corruption” while 43 percent agreed and seven percent had no opinion.
“It’s as much of a negative reflection of Trump as it is Rohrabacher. A lot of people look at Rohrabacher as an extension of Trump, who has had a very controversial, scandal-ridden presidency during his year and a half in office. I think a lot of this is a turn off for voters,” Moodian said.
But Neugebauer said Rohrabacher is capable of standing on his own and doesn’t see Trump adversely affecting Rohrabacher’s campaign.
“Dana (Rohrabacher) is someone who has always had his own identity as a bit of a maverick. Someone who has never hesitated to step out and away from his own party. He’s a surfer and he loves the coastal lifestyle. I think people understand that and appreciate that,” Neugebauer said.
Republicans are the majority in voter registration in the district. According to the Orange County Registrar of Voters Sept. 7 voter registration data, Republicans make up 39.5 percent of the district’s 391,000 voters. Democrats trail at 29.7 percent, while the no party preference voters are close behind at 26.2 percent.
“We don’t take elections for granted, but Dana Rohrabacher has won this seat for a very very long time … I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that 2018 will be very different,” Fleming said.
Rohrabacher has historically beaten his opponents by a wide margin. In 2016 he won by nearly 17 percentage points. In the 2014 midterm elections he had a nearly 30-point margin and in 2012 he had a 22-point margin.
But Moodian said people who voted for Scott Baugh in the June primary election are Republicans who no longer support Rohrabacher. The June primary ballot had 16 names on it, including eight Democrats, six Republicans, one Libertarian and one no party preference.
Baugh, a former Assemblyman and OC GOP chairman, managed to pull 15.8 percent of the vote — 27,514 people.
“I think Scott Baugh did some damage to Rohrabacher in the primary this year that shows there’s division in the Republican party in that district,” Moodian said.
“What did Scott Baugh do? He portrayed Rohrabacher as somebody who is out of touch, who’s past his prime. Who’s somebody that’s affiliated with marijuana, Julian Assange, Russia … I think we’re going to see a good number of Republicans who just don’t show up — they won’t vote Democratic, but they won’t vote for Rohrabacher,” Moodian said.
D’Annibale said it’s a ‘rhetorical question” if Baugh damaged Rohrabacher in the primary election.
“Because we have the answer — even local Republicans, good, caring smart Republicans, who have supported Dana in the past are completely fed up,” D’Annibale said of the primary results.
But Neugebauer said the Baugh voters are coming back to Rohrabacher.
“In what I see is that voters are coming back home to Dana (Rohrabacher) at a nice rate and as they become more informed about Rouda, I expect that to accelerate,” he said.
Voter turnout in the 2016 general presidential election was high at 75 percent, but in the 2014 midterm general election only 45 percent of voters showed up to the polls. Lower turnout generally favors Republicans.
But Moodian said there’s going to be a high turnout this year, which could be a threat to Rohrabacher.
“We’re going to see very high turn out on the Democratic side and very high turnout by independents (no party preference voters) who are turned off by Trump’s presidency,” Moodian said, adding the other Republican-majority Congressional Districts are facing the same threat from Democrats. “It’s something we haven’t seen in Orange County in our lifetime.”
Election handicapper websites The Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball both classify the 48th district as a toss up.
Former President Barack Obama campaigned in Orange County Saturday on behalf of Southern California Democratic Congressional candidates, including Rouda, running to try to give Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives.
According to statistics from the 2015 American Community Survey, 13 percent of the 48th district is Latino, 18 percent is Asian and nearly 64 percent is white. Nearly half — 46 percent — of people older than 25 hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The New York Times poll found non-college educated whites were majority Republican at 53 percent compared to 40 percent Democratic. The gap is closer among college-educated whites with 45 percent of people who identified as Democrats, and 44 percent identified as Republicans.
But overall, four-year college graduates were Republican at 47 percent while 41 percent were Democrats. The numbers flip for people who hold PhDs or masters degrees: 51 percent identify as Democrats while 40 percent identify as Republican.
Hillary Clinton won the district by two percentage points in 2016, but in 2012 Mitt Romney took the district by 12 percentage points.
“It’s the perfect storm in Rouda’s favor and Baugh did a lot of damage and I think those voters who voted for Baugh — I’m not sure they’re going to show up. I think the vote for Baugh was an anti-Rohrabacher vote,” Moodian said. “I’m not predicting Rouda will win, but I’m predicting an unprecedented turnout in this district.”
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio