NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The first speech of a marathon Memorial Day weekend went as well as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) could have hoped. He quoted his old boss, Ronald Reagan. He thanked the military for saving America, from its founding through “those long years when communism threatened to establish atheist dictatorships around the world.”
And after he wrapped, retirees in star-spangled polo shirts chased him down to thank him and to say how well he’d done the other night on Fox News.
“These people aren’t going to vote for Democrats,” Rohrabacher said, strolling along the water on the way to his house. “A lot of Republican women voted for Hillary. That is not going to translate into anything else next year. Trump is a very boisterous guy, and that was a turnoff for some people, but these are Reagan-type conservatives.”
Democrats don’t share that read on Rohrabacher’s district. In 2016, for the first time in 80 years, the Democratic presidential nominee carried Orange County, sweeping up districts including Rohrabacher’s beach-bound 48th. A stretch of pristine beaches and increasingly diverse suburbs, the 48th District had previously been one of the nation’s wellsprings of modern conservatism.
Down the ballot from Hillary Clinton, Democrats didn’t recruit candidates to take advantage of California’s anti-Trump swing, and Rohrabacher kept his seat. But now, Democrats are trying to fix that — and they view Rohrabacher, elected in 1988 and rarely challenged since, as a target.
Yet Rohrabacher, 69, is not behaving like a politician facing oblivion. Many of the 23 Republicans in districts that backed Clinton, or only narrowly backed Trump, have agonized over the American Health Care Act and grimaced when asked about the probe into possible Russian meddling in the election.
The reason: Like the north Atlanta suburbs where Jon Ossoff is trying to flip a seat for Democrats, Orange County’s coast is tempting Democrats with a “rising” electorate — college-educated, rich, only two-thirds white.
Rohrabacher understands as much — “This is not a blue-collar area,” he said — but he does not acknowledge a larger political threat.
Rohrabacher, without question the most resolute supporter in Congress of closer ties to Russia, never grimaces. In an interview this weekend, and in the wake of stories about Russians sounding him out as a spy and colleagues joking that he was “paid” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rohrabacher simply restated his strategic theory: It is better for America to be friends with Russia than spit at it as an enemy.
“I was hard-core anti-communist and anti-Soviet; I was never anti-Russian,” said Rohrabacher, who paused the interview occasionally to say hi to neighbors on the walk home. “The very same groups of people who are unrelenting in their hostility today wanted to be friends with Russia when it was run by atheistic communist dictators.”
Democrats, who have put the 48th and other Orange County districts on their 2018 dream board, are convinced that Rohrabacher is busily un-electing himself.
“He is who he is, but Republicans vote for him because he’s a Republican, and we’ve never had much luck finding a challenger,” said Fran Sdao, the chair of Orange County’s Democrats. “This year, they’re coming out the woodwork.”
Even lower-information voters, she suggested, could not miss the stories of Rohrabacher defending Trump or the Russian intrigue spilling into the paper every day. “He’s gotten a lot more attention because of the Russia stuff.”
Outside Orange County, Democrats can’t quite agree on how big a part Russia should play in their 2018 comeback strategy. In the 48th District, it’s at least an irresistible hook. Los Angeles-area Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D), whose role on the House Intelligence Committee has made him a party star, has spent parts of congressional recesses introducing new candidates to party clubs; he did so for the Democrats’ favored candidate against Rohrabacher, Harley Rouda, earlier in May.
Rouda, a 55-year-old lawyer and businessman, had been in electoral politics for just a few weeks. “If Hillary Clinton had won, I don’t think I’d be sitting here,” Rouda said over coffee at a spot near Laguna Beach’s sandy coast. “If Romney was president, voters wouldn’t be as engaged and enraged as they are now. It’s about Trump and his cronies.”
To take the House, Democrats are salivating over half a dozen California districts; in each one, they’re scouting for candidates who can run against the Republican majority by making their opponents infamous — and sidestepping their own ideological swamps. Rouda, who donated $1,000 to John Kasich’s presidential campaign, blends country club issues such as “balancing the budget” with left-wing issues such as a $15 minimum wage and a move toward single-payer health care.
“Trump even praised the health-care system in Australia,” he said.
Confidently, Rouda and Democrats speculate that simply informing Orange County voters who represents them in Congress would knock Rohrabacher out, and a few other Republicans besides. In 2010, Republicans found conservative districts that had been controlled by Democrats for generations falling their way, simply because they had candidates, money and a president to rally against.
“That’s why raising enough money is so important,” Rouda said. “The Democrats tend to be very aware of his record; Republicans, I don’t think, fully understand where he is. Most Republicans in this district are moderate. They do not want to see offshore drilling. They do believe in climate change. And we have a congressman who doesn’t agree with them.”
In some districts, embattled Republicans are adjusting by looking for political space. In Orange County, Rohrabacher sees no need. Over 24 hours of Memorial Day events, no voters came up to him to complain. A few encouraged the president to tweet less; more thanked the congressman for doing his job.
For many, the perception of that job has been shaped by a conservative media that has dug in against Democratic story lines. The Fox News segment that many constituents said they’d watched portrayed Rohrabacher as an avuncular victim of character smears, a surfer and public servant who had been attacked unfairly.
“McCarthyism by its nature hurts people, makes it harder for them to do the jobs they do,” Fox’s Tucker Carlson said. “Has this affected your life? I mean, you’re running for reelection — is this an issue in your campaign?”
“They have been putting out these hit pieces that are aimed at trying to convince people that I have been engaged in some type of illegal act or something,” Rohrabacher replied. “It’s the same thing they are doing with Trump.”
Later in the interview, Rohrabacher said he’d been “looking for proof” that the coverage of Russia would amount to something. He cited the stories of Russia-linked hackers breaking into the Democratic National Committee — allegations that did not convince him.
In The Washington Post interview Sunday, he asked how the newspaper had been able to run an article saying definitively that a murdered DNC staffer had nothing to do with the release of party documents to WikiLeaks and other sites.
“I hope you’re wrong,” he said. “The story says these various people had determined that there was a Russian connection to the hacking. Well, I haven’t seen any. Can you tell me any conclusion where the Russians were involved?”
As he hustled to his next event, pausing at home to make (and share) an energy drink with yogurt, Rohrabacher explained that he knew too much about spycraft and intelligence to believe every accusation that blipped across the news.
“There are people who work for the intelligence agencies who are very dedicated conservatives, right-wingers, patriots,” he said. “There are people who work for the agencies who are on the left. Just because they work for the agency, that doesn’t mean you can always trust them. If an intelligence agency verifies this or that, I don’t take that for granted.”