A Red Sun Sets in California

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

Spencer Hagaman, BF ’21, predicts the fall of his California congressman in the first edition of The Yale Herald’s new series, “Stomping Grounds: Local Stories That Will Define the Election.”

Rohrabacher has mastered the first rule of power maintenance: to maintain your mandate, you can either be a good ruler or prevent your constituents from learning of better leadership… This election is different.

Dana Rohrabacher, Republican U.S. Representative from California’s 48th Congressional District, finds himself in unfamiliar territory: political uncertainty. The Congressman has faced little resistance over his 32-year career in California’s 48th Congressional District, which comprises Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, and, my hometown, Huntington Beach. The district is situated in Orange County, often referred to as the last Republican stronghold of California. I cannot remember a single contentious election in my 18 years in Orange County — Democrats were too unorganized and underfunded to effectively campaign, and Republicans never needed to. On Election Day, many people, my mother included, simply went through the ballot box in streamline fashion, voting for every candidate with an ‘R’ next to their name.

In 2016, Rohrabacher won with 58 percent of the popular vote, and Republicans’ Camelot appeared safe. However, for the first time since FDR, the county voted for a Democratic presidential candidate — Hillary Clinton. Shockingly, even CA-48, the “heartland of Orange County Republicanism”, narrowly voted for Clinton. Democrats saw the shift as a repudiation of Trump Republicanism and smelled blood in the water. The path to regaining the house lay in Orange County, and the name at the top of their list: Dana Rohrabacher.

A former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, 15-term Rohrabacher is a familiar face in Washington. Early in his elected career, Rohrabacher served as a reminder of the Reagan resurgence Republicans flaunt to this day. However, the Congressman has shifted further to the right in his time in office. In recent years, he has garnered national attention for his extreme skepticism of man-made climate change, his support for Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and his strong anti-immigration stance.

However, Rohrabacher’s eccentricities made little difference in the Republican-heavy 48th Congressional District. Rohrabacher faced little resistance from weak, unknown Democratic challengers. Rohrabacher has retained his seat with at least 55 percent of the vote in 14 of his last 15 elections. Rohrabacher was an avid surrogate for Donald Trump, proudly displaying his “Make America Great Again” hat as he made his way from one Memorial Day event to another in May 2016. Rohrabacher was even rumoured to be a potential dark-horse appointment for Secretary of State following Trump’s victory.

However, since Hillary Clinton’s triumph in Orange County, there is reason to believe Rohrabacher’s days are numbered. He faces a formidable former Republican-turned-centrist-Democrat in Harley Rouda, a former real estate executive. Rouda, to many, embodies a new democratic strategy: turnout Democrats with a populist message and attract centrist voters with the promise of prosperity and good government. At the end of June, Rohrabacher trailed Rouda in both fundraising and cash on hand. In previous cycles, Democratic events garnered a few dozen attendees at most; at a July canvassing event in Huntington Beach, an estimated 800 supporters of all backgrounds were in attendance, all motivated to help “Flip the 48th.” Democrats even sent their strongest surrogate, President Barack Obama, to Orange County.

Even with the growing Democratic momentum in the 48th District, Rohrabacher’s foremost challenges have been within his own party. Many Orange County Republicans are fatigued with Rohrabacher. In the primaries, Rohrabacher was challenged by a one time ally, former Assemblyman Scott Baugh. In 1995, Rohrabacher’s wife Rhonda pled guilty to two felony counts for assisting Baugh in a ballot fraud scheme to split Democratic voters. Rohrabacher himself was fined almost $50,000 for campaign finance violations. Baugh’s entry into the primary race revealed the growing divisions within the local party. Though Baugh was unable to advance to the general election in the district’s primary, he siphoned over 30 percent of the Republican vote, illustrating the growing hesitation within the party for Rohrabacher.

Since June, Rohrabacher’s public image has further deteriorated due to a number of scandals. The Congressman has been named repeatedly in the Russia investigation. Rohrabacher lost the financial support and endorsement of the Orange County Association of Realtors after stating that homeowners should be able to refuse to sell to someone based on their sexuality. In July, Rohrabacher appeared on Sacha Baron Cohen’s new Showtime series Who is America?, seeming to support “Kinderguardians,” a fictional program made up by Baron Cohen, proposing to train and arm talented elementary school children.

While it is unclear of how November will play out, one thing is clear: Win or lose in November, this will certainly be Dana Rohrabacher’s last election. The Congressman has made no comment on the issue, but even if he defeats the Democratic advance in November, Rohrabacher will likely lack the support to run for a seventeenth term. A growing number of local party leaders and voters are dissatisfied with the Congressman while some Orange County Republicans are already eyeing potential 2020 House runs, regardless of this election’s outcome.

The 48th Congressional District illuminates the Republican Party’s greatest woe in the 2018 election: the alienation of middle-of-the-road Republicans struggling to identify with the party that once was defined by the principles of Lincoln and Reagan. Many people back home are frustrated and beleaguered with the antics of Congressman Rohrabacher and want a change. However, Rohrabacher has mastered the first rule to power maintenance: to maintain your mandate, you can either be a good ruler or prevent your constituents from learning of better leadership. Rohrabacher has a history of helping to thwart the viability of alternative candidates, but this election is different. Rohrabacher and the Republican Party have failed to dismantle Harley Rouda’s candidacy. Rouda’s campaign is knocking on 6,000 doors of registered voters every weekend, educating voters that — yes, indeed — there is an alternative to voting for Rohrabacher. And when the voter base has learned that, Rohrabacher’s reign will be over.

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