Democratic challenger Harley Rouda was virtually tied with nearly 30-year Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), after Rouda’s small lead slightly increased to two points, or 3,602 votes, according to Wednesday’s updated count.
It’s impossible to know how many 48th district voter ballots were still outstanding. There are 409,000 registered voters in the 48th and 186,000 votes have been counted as of Wednesday evening.
Chapman University political science professor Mike Moodian said it’s been bad news for Rohrabacher since the first round of ballot counts released shortly after 8 p.m. election night, when the Congressman had a razor-thin lead of 87 votes.
“I think that was the first sign of bad news for Rohrabacher, because oftentimes early voting tends to trend your older Republican demographic. If Rouda can pull this off, I think it’s one of the biggest political upsets of 2018,” said Moodian, a California politics specialist. “It’s still too early to call.”
At the end of election night, Rouda had a lead of 2,774 votes — a 1.4 percent margin. As of Wednesday night, Rouda had 51 percent of the vote and Rohrabacher had 49 percent.
It likely will take days if not weeks before the outcome Orange County’s tight races are known. As of the final election night update, around 2 a.m. Wednesday, county elections officials reported the results of 650,671 ballots.
As of Wednesday evening, another estimated 418,000 Orange County ballots hadn’t been counted, and tens of thousands of additional ballots were estimated to still be traveling through the mail, according to county Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley.
The GOP has been slowly losing its edge in voter registration in the district. In 2012, Republicans held 44 percent of voters compared to the Democrats’ 28 percent. Now Republicans make up 38 percent of registered voters in the district, compared to Democrats’ 30 percent. During the same time frame, no party preference voters grew from 23 to 27 percent of voters.
“A longtime Republican incumbent who’s been part of the county establishment forever is on the verge of losing his seat in a district that has an eight point Republican advantage: that is immense,” Moodian said.
Recent polling showed the race was a dead heat. A Sept. 8 poll from the New York Times showed Rouda and Rohrabacher tied and an Oct. 4 Los Angeles Times poll also had the two tied. The New York Times released another poll Nov. 4 that again showed the race was a tie.
Rohrabacher was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 and has historically won reelection by double-digit point leads. A former speechwriter and special assistant to Ronald Reagan, the 71-year-old Rohrabacher has been criticized for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, pro-Russia views and his push to legalize weed. The Congressman even recalled a drunken arm wrestling match with Putin that happened over 20 years ago, which Rohrabacher said he lost.
“I actually thought that’s the one where the Republican would hang on. I think, here’s the way i look at it, there’s nothing really new the voters found out about Rohrabacher they didn’t already know. So I was actually kind of surprised … that Rouda is significantly up,” said pollster Adam Probolsky.
The political newcomer Rouda, a 56-year-old real estate investor, was a Republican until 1998 when he switched parties. Rouda’s come under fire from Republicans in the district for saying he supported Medicare for everyone when a moderator, at an undated debate before the primary election, asked if he would give Medicare to undocumented immigrants. His campaign later said Rouda misspoke and meant to say all legal residents.
Moodian said the increase to the Rouda lead is reminiscent of the June primary election, when Rouda started out losing to Democrat Hans Keirstead, but ended up taking the number two spot when all the votes were tallied.
“We’re seeing an almost identical game plan right now … where he’s had a very strong push in the end,” Moodian said.
Rouda fundraised $7.3 million, while Rohrabacher raised $2.4 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission website.
California State University, Fullerton professor and elections scholar Steve Stambough said the early vote-by-mail ballots tend to be Republicans, but the late voters may swing slightly to the left.
“Theoretically and just a hunch, they should lean a little bit to the left because a lot of the absentee voters who are Republicans tend to be older and they are going to get their ballots and mail their ballots early. They’re used to this because they’ve been doing it for a while,” Stambough said. “There’s no real reason to believe it’s going to skew one way or another.”
Probolksy said researchers won’t know which way the late vote swings until after the fact.
“I don’t characterize the late voter as the more liberal or more conservative … I don’t think we get to know that information until later,” he said.
Moodian echoed some of what Probolksy said about the late ballots.
“Given the political climate and a lot of the momentum we’ve seen, it could help Democrats more — but that’s data I’m waiting to dive into when it comes in because it’ll tell us a lot. The jury’s still out on that one,” Moodian said.
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