Longtime Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) faces Democratic challenger Harley Rouda Nov. 6 in the 48th Congressional district, where Republicans have an eight-point lead over Democrats in voter registration.

Recent polling shows the race is a dead heat. A Sept. 8 poll from the New York Times shows Rouda and Rohrabacher tied and an Oct. 4 Los Angeles Times poll also has the two at a tie. As of Oct. 31, the New York Times is conducting another poll.

The 71-year-old Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter and special assistant for President Ronald Reagan, has been in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1989. He’s been criticized for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, pro-Russia views and his push to legalize weed. He’s even recalled a drunken arm wrestling match with Putin that happened over 20 years ago, which Rohrabacher said he lost.

Rohrabacher’s controversies date back to when he was first elected in 1988. Rohrabacher, as a Congressman-elect, flew to Afghanistan for a week to help a mujahideen unit fight the Soviet army. “I didn’t carry a gun—most of the time,” Rohrabacher told Mother Jones in 2010.

Rouda, a political newcomer, is a real estate investor who 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 has since said Rouda misspoke and meant to say all legal residents.

During their first and only debate on Inside OC with Rick Reiff Oct. 15, the two sparred over immigration, climate change and Russia. Rohrabacher largely avoided talking about climate change, but has been criticized in the past for disputing human pollution is worsening climate change.

Rouda advocates for expanded Medicare, addressing climate change and spurring middle class job creation.

“But certainly making sure that we have healthcare available to all … that we protect medicare, protect social security … create good middle class jobs,” said Rouda Oct. 15 when Reiff asked about top priorities.

Rouda also said sober living homes and the homelessness issue need to be addressed in the district, and partisan bickering needs to end.

“We need to get new blood in place so we can get rid of this partisan bickering and move country and community forward,” Rouda said.

Rohrabacher said his top priority was illegal immigration and attacked Rouda for the disputed Medicare statement.

“What’s the most important issue I think to me, and to also to the people of California and the people of this country, is to try to get control of our borders where we have had 30 million illegals crossing into our country in over the last 20, 30 years,” Rohrabacher said.

When Reiff asked Rohrabacher about giving Dreamers a shot at legal status or citizenship, the Congressman said, “Illegal immigrants come here and giving them citizenship … means millions and millions more will come and our system will breakdown. It’s in the process of breaking down now. Our neighborhoods aren’t safe, our schools are inundated and we are punishing our own people by providing limited resources to people who are here illegally.”

The two fought over Rohrabacher’s notes before their scheduled verbal joust. Caught on hot mics and rolling cameras, Rouda and his campaign staff disputed with the longtime newsman Reiff and claimed Rohrabacher wasn’t supposed to have notes for the debate. Rouda’s staff claimed there was an agreement about not having notes, while Reiff said he couldn’t recall such an agreement.

“You’re a hack,” whispered a Rouda staff member to Reiff before the debate started.

In a last-minute effort Oct. 25 to help Rouda defeat Rohrabacher, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $4.4 million to run ads against the Congressman through Bloomberg’s political action committee.

As of Oct. 31, Open Secrets — a campaign finance watchdog website — now considers the 48th Congressional district race the sixth most expensive House race in the country, factoring in spending from both campaigns and outside spending is at $23 million.

The most expensive race is Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional district at $26 million. 

Rouda fundraised $7.3 million, while Rohrabacher raised $2.4 million, according to the Federal Elections Commission website.

Voter turnout in the June primary election was 45 percent. Rohrabacher and the five GOP candidates received votes from 53 percent of ballots casted and Rouda, along with seven Democratic candidates, got 46 percent of the vote.

Turnout in midterm elections is generally lower than presidential years. The district voter turnout for the June 2014 midterm primary was nearly 25 percent. And 2018’s primary turnout is close to 2014’s general election turnout of 46 percent.

Like the other Orange County Congressional districts targeted by national Democrats, the GOP’s edge in voter registration has been dropping. In 2012 the GOP had a 15-point lead over Democrats — seven points more than 2018. The no party preference voters grew from 23 to 27 percent since 2012, while Democrat voters grew from 28 to 30 percent.

Historically considered a Republican stronghold, election handicapper websites Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report list the 48th district as a toss-up. Poll aggregator FiveThirtyEight gives Rouda a 65 percent chance of winning by a margin of almost three points.

As of Oct. 30, Republicans hold the advantage on the early returns — 45 percent of ballots returned are Republican, 31 percent are Democrat and 24 percent are no party preference and other parties, according to the district vote tracker from Political Data Inc.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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