The race to check Donald Trump in America’s conservative utopia

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Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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If there really is a “blue wave,” it may break in Orange County, California, against a 71-year-old, pot-loving, Russia-cheering Republican: Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who has won 15 consecutive elections.

His November face-off with multimillionaire Democratic nominee Harley Rouda is closely watched in Washington, D.C. Rohrabacher’s seat is one of 30 considered toss-ups by election forecasters; Democrats need just 23 seats to win a majority in Congress.

Their race in the 48th District is among the top-ten most expensive of House races. Political committees have spent more than $28 million to shift the election here—more than $112 for each person expected to vote.

Rohrabacher won here in 2016—but so did Hillary Clinton, the first Democrat to win the district in a presidential race. Today, Donald Trump has a bare majority of approval among likely voters. When it comes to enthusiasm, a recent poll found 46% percent of voters disapprove strongly of the president, while just 33% say they strongly approve.

Nationally, Trump’s encouragement of white nationalism, his erratic governing style and questions of personal corruption dominate the news. In sunny Orange County, Rohrabacher’s key issues are sober living homes that he believes threaten neighborhood safety, nuclear waste on the beach at San Onofre, and noise complaints at Long Beach Airport. California 48 isn’t just a potential swing seat; it’s a question: Does one of the most comfortable places in America care about Donald Trump?

The incumbent’s campaign declined requests to interview the candidate, who does not publicize public events; his town halls are held at private homes with guest lists furnished by his office, which Quartz visited on Oct. 18.

The “GOP HQ & Liberty Lounge” is behind Skosh Monahan’s, an Irish sports bar in Costa Mesa. A neon sign proclaims ROHRABCHER LIBERTY HQ. An open space is filled with furniture, desks, and campaign ephemera: precinct maps and yard signs and bumper stickers. There are pictures of Rohrabacher staring soulfully into Ronald Reagan’s eyes as a White House speechwriter and posing next to a weapon with Afghan mujahideen in 1988.

It is not filled with volunteers calling voters, a little unusual in the evening three weeks out from an election. Rohrabacher hasn’t had to run a real campaign in a while, local politicos say, and it appears he was not quite ready for this one.

Where good Republicans go before they die

Beachfront homes host signs backing Rohrabacher.
Beachfront homes host signs backing Rohrabacher.
Image: Quartz/Tim Fernholz

Orange County—a bedroom community situated southeast of America’s true second city, a name bundled in citrus tang and sunshine—has been the conservative heart of California for decades. The groves disappeared after World War II, as workers flooded into southern California to build jet planes and cars and missiles and satellites. The population doubled between 1960 and 1970, becoming a by-word for bucolic Cold War suburbia.

Here, the cultural and social upheaval of the post-war era—hippies, civil rights, feminism, Medicare and taxes—ran up against a sunny bulwark of white conservatism. Orange County is the birthplace of Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan’s springboard to the California governor’s mansion and then the White House. In his words, it is “where the good Republicans go before they die … good Democrats, too.”

Huntington Beach, California, is the largest city in the district. It was named for the railway baron whose electric trains made the town feasible for real estate speculation in the 1920s. Access is now provided by California One, the highway sweeping down the coast. On one side, perfect beaches, and on the other, restaurants, boutiques and hotels in the outsized exurban buildings that give strip malls sufficient gravitas for the wealthy.

The average income here is $128,000, more than twice the national average. The median home costs almost $900,000, according to the real estate website Zillow. One result of the conservative counter-revolution in California was Proposition 13, a popular referendum enacted in 1978 that limited property taxes to just 1%. It protected homeowners from rising taxes, but left California with the second-lowest homeownership rate in the nation.

Rohrabacher voted against Trump’s signature tax law last year because it capped the mortgage tax deduction, a no-no in a community where housing values are everything. His campaign still brags about flood insurance rules Rohrabacher worked on two decades ago to cut insurance payments for people living near the Santa Ana river.

This hasn’t been enough in the eyes of his challenger. “We’ve had a compact with workers in our country with the understanding that if you work 40 hours a week…you can afford to hopefully buy a home someday and you can afford to put your kids through school,” Rouda, the Democratic challenger told me. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore.”

Especially in Orange County, a kind of living metaphor for climbing to the top and pulling the ladder up after you. The 48th district, where the population is 20% Hispanic or Latino compared to a state average of 37.5%, is known for its opposition to immigration. Orange County governments have battled the state over its decision not to cooperate with Trump’s increase in federal immigration enforcement. The county sheriff is ignoring those state guidelines and several cities are suing to overturn them.

The incumbent: Dana Rohrabacher

Oliver North, the former Marine lieutenant colonel who faces federal conspiracy charges for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, joins old White House buddy Dana Rohrabacher, candidate for the state's 42nd Congressional District, at a rally in a hangar at Long Beach, California Airport, June 1, 1988.
Rohrabacher and Lt. Col. Oliver North in 1988.
Image: AP Photo/Nick Ut

Rohrabacher was born in 1947 near San Diego to a former Marine officer.  As a young man, he was a libertarian activist, touring campuses with a guitar to sing folk songs in the tune of Ayn Rand. He was “very passionate about the fight against communism,” his spokesperson told me. He was a right-wing hippie, favoring the legalization of drugs, and outside the pale of establishment Republican politics.

The youth chair for Reagan’s 1966 gubernatorial campaign in southern Los Angeles, Rohrabacher became an activist and editorial writer for a local paper, volunteered on Reagan’s quixotic primary challenge to incumbent president Gerald Ford and his whipping of Jimmy Carter to finally win the White House in 1980.

Whisked off to Washington to be a speechwriter for the new president, he was something of a lesser light in an office that churned out memorable lines for the first actor president; Rohrabacher never quite equaled Peggy Noonan’s emotional depth in response to the Challenger disaster or made history like Peter Robinson’s famous call for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”

Rohrabacher spotted his next opportunity back home, when a California congressional seat opened up ahead of the 1988 election. One Republican competitor described him as a carpetbagger who had spent too much time outside the district.

The White House aide won after exposing that his chief opponent in the primary, a county official and local Republican leader, had been lying about having a college degree for 25 years. His campaign was boosted by the last-minute endorsement of Lt. Col. Oliver North, then nationally known for his role in the Reagan administration’s scheme to sell arms to Iran and use the proceeds to fund right-wing rebels in Nicaragua.

Now, Rohrabacher’s fate is in the hands of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a PAC organized by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to protect his party’s majority. It has spent $3.6 million so far to keep Rohrabacher in his seat, the only major group intervening to back him.

The challenger: Harley Rouda

California congressional candidates Harley Rouda attends at the Take It Back California event where former President Barack Obama campaigns in support of California congressional candidates, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Anaheim, Calif.
Rouda at an event where he was endorsed by Barack Obama.
Image: AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu

Tall and still fit at 56, bearing a resemblance to the late actor Bill Pullman, Rouda grew up the son of a successful real estate developer in Ohio; he is a friend of its Trump-skeptical Republican governor John Kasich. He went into the family business after a career as an attorney, building a network of brokerages that were eventually sold to Berkshire Hathaway. Last year, Rouda reported assets worth tens of millions of dollars and earned more than $1 million in salaries and fees.

Rouda moved to California while running his real estate business and seemed set to ride out his time there as an investor—and Republican voter. Donald Trump’s election changed that presented a “wake-up call” for Rouda, who piously tells me “I was frustrated with both parties, putting party first, country second.” Rouda was apparently more frustrated one party and switched to the Democratic line before announcing his candidacy, throwing more than $1 million of his own money into the race.

Clinton’s 2016 victory in this district had shown Rouda an opportunity. The tenor of Trump’s campaign alienated moderates and energized Democrats, especially women. Rouda’s wife, who spent twenty years in marketing before becoming a novelist, urged him to run. “She likes to tease me that I’m perfect, but for the fact I’m not a woman,” he says. “Our campaign since the day I announced has been driven by women and we are over 4,000 volunteers right now, and the vast majority of them are women.”

Party strategists hope that a combination of Trump fatigue among Republicans, Trump hatred among Democrats, and a younger, more diverse population could hand Rouda a victory—if they turn out. Rouda is walking a careful line to cater to all these constituencies. After tacking left in a controversial primary he won by 125 votes, he struck a centrist tone in an interview, noting that “I’ve always respected John McCain, Joe Biden, John Kerry….I liked the message of hope and prosperity that both Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan showed us.”

At a thank-you event for his campaign’s top volunteers, one told Rouda frankly that he wasn’t impressed with early campaign appearances, saying the new candidate appeared irritated by questions.

“Boy, did you learn fast,” the volunteer concluded.

Odds of victory

Inside Dana Rohrabacher's Liberty Lounge.
Inside Dana Rohrabacher’s Liberty Lounge.
Image: Quartz/Tim Fernholz

In thirty years in office, the (R) next to Rohrabacher’s name on the ballot has made it easy for him to keep his seat and allowed him to pursue pet interests. These range from cannabis legalization and aliens to Wikileaks and rehabilitating Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to the point where the Republican Speaker of the House and majority leader were recorded speculating that he was on Putin’s payroll.

In 2016, Rohrabacher raised eight times more money than his largely unknown challenger and won by 50,000 votes. Today, he is dramatically outspent by Rouda, who has raised $6.7 million compared to Rohrabacher’s $2.4 million, per Federal Election Commission findings. On Oct. 25, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $4 million advertising buy intended to back the Democrat, to go with $10.5 million other outside groups have spent backing Rouda and attacking Rohrabacher.

Still, the most recent poll (pdf) gives Rohrabacher a narrow 50-48 advantage among likely voters. But the model employed by the election analysts at FiveThirtyEight, which takes into account fundraising, demographic trends and other factors, suggests that Rouda is more likely to win—though by an equally small margin.

Democrats here repeatedly told me they were afraid to even reveal their affiliation by putting up yard signs, much less talk politics; Republicans frequently told me they didn’t know any Democrats at all. That can make the electorate hard to read. But with more than 80% of all voters saying their vote for Rouda or Rohrabacher is a signal of their support or opposition for president Trump, we’ll hear them loud and clear on Nov. 6.