Deepening controversy around the Trump campaign's Russian ties is barely registering in the early stages of competitive congressional races around the country.
But if there's one place where investigations into Moscow's support for Donald Trump might matter, it's in Republican Dana Rohrabacher's California district— the increasingly competitive Orange County seat held by a man who can't stop defending the Kremlin.
From Rohrabacher’s vocal defenses of Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer, to his own dealings with an ex-Soviet counterintelligence official who was at that same meeting, to a report that the FBI warned Rohrabacher Russian spies were trying to recruit him, his reputation as Vladimir Putin’s best friend in Congress is landing him in story after unflattering story about Moscow’s broader influence campaign.
And back home, people are beginning to notice.
“Our district really didn’t understand that, and that was just a low-key kind of non-issue,” said Diana Lee Carey, vice chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County’s west division, which includes Rohrabacher’s district. “People are now starting to be aware of it.”
Rohrabacher, who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, is a Cold Warrior-turned- Putin defender who also happens to be running in a district that Hillary Clinton won. (She was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Orange County since 1936, defeating Trump by less than two percentage points.) Now, Rohrabacher is one of several Republicans national Democrats are targeting in California.
He has held the seat since 1988 and won by 17 percentage points in 2016 despite Clinton’s victory, and any incumbent with that kind of record has enormous built-in advantages.
But Democrats see an opportunity in 2018 built in part on Rohrabacher’s views about Moscow at a time when friendliness toward Russia is fraught—in a way that it hasn’t been in recent past cycles—amid investigations into Kremlin meddling in the 2016 campaign. While Rohrabacher has long been an advocate for better relations with Russia, Democrats think that position may be perceived in a new light.
“Dana Rohrabacher, his record, his deep connections to Russia, have never been put under a microscope,” said one national Democrat familiar with the race. “They will this cycle. That is a huge difference. He sits in a district Hillary Clinton won. He’s never had his record examined closely. That’s going to happen this cycle. I think people are going to be pretty shocked about what they find.”
To prosecute that case, national Democrats are enthusiastic about Hans Keirstead, a stem cell researcher and businessman who is one of several candidates challenging Rohrabacher. And some Republicans privately concede that Keirstead is a strong candidate.
“You’ve got to take the new contender pretty seriously. He’s got cash,” said a California Republican consultant familiar with the race. “It’s hard to be a good fit for the district when you’re a Democrat. Having said that, I do think his profile looks very strong, it gives him some real credibility in a race against someone whose credibility is sometimes questionable.”
Democrats stress that in Rohrabacher’s district, as in other competitive seats across the country, health care is the issue that most motivates their base—not complicated and still-evolving Russia investigations. But that hasn’t stopped the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Rohrabacher’s opponents from pouncing on controversial comments Rohrabacher makes about Moscow, and activists are taking note.
“His district voted for Hillary Clinton and then voted for Dana Rohrabacher. The reason, I believe, is because he’s a 20-year incumbent,” said Aaron McCall, the chairman of the progressive Indivisible chapter in the 48th district. Indivisible groups across the country have been mobilizing to protest Trump’s agenda. “Beyond that, they didn’t know much about him other than he’s a surfer and for marijuana legalization. But now people are learning about Dana Rohrabacher, learning about his stances on Russia, his support of Vladimir Putin.”
Democrats with knowledge of the race say that the messaging focus for the foreseeable future will be that instead of delivering for the district, Rohrabacher has been enmeshed in a series of controversial, even odd, dealings with Russian associates in a way that pushes him well out of the Republican mainstream. Keirstead leaned into that message in an interview with McClatchy.
“Rohrabacher is more interested in talking to spies and poorly affiliated lawyers than he is worrying about things in this district,” Keirstead said, adding, “You can’t get ahold of the guy, but he loves to be on TV and talk on the [House] floor about Russia.”
Rohrabacher wasn’t made available for an interview for this story, and his office declined to comment.
Keirstead’s campaign is also regularly highlighting a story about Rohrabacher’s opposition to a bill designed to cripple Syria’s Russian-backed Assad regime, which is slaughtering Syrian civilians. During a hearing on Capitol Hill, Rohrabacher argued that the U.S. and its allies have also been guilty of killing innocents, and that pressuring Bashar al-Assad could lead to a takeover from a worse actor—a position entirely out of step with other Republicans on the committee, not to mention the Democrats. To Keirstead, that’s the point.
“I officially ran out of WTFs during that entire speech,” marveled Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., in a testy exchange with Rohrabacher captured in the story Keirstead’s campaign is circulating. “To put a moral equivalency of our action in Mosul to what Bashar al-Assad is doing made me honestly want to throw up. It was embarrassing.”
For all of the discomfort he causes even members of his own party, the power of incumbency will be meaningful for Rohrabacher, who back home has a distinct brand that many political observers say closely matches the district.
“Dana won by a massive amount last time,” said Jim Righeimer, a Republican city council member from Costa Mesa, Calif. “With all the money and activity and everything else, it won’t be the same spread, but this district couldn’t care less about anything to do with Russia…obviously, Dana’s going to have to do a bigger campaign, raise more money and all of that, but in the end I don’t see it changing anything at all.”
In the 48th district, which stretches from Seal Beach and Huntington Beach down past Laguna Beach, and east toward Irvine, there are plenty of wealthier, better-educated voters who might lean Republican but don’t like Trump, as well as growing minority communities that tilt Democratic. But there is also a more blue-collar slice of the 48th District that appreciates Rohrabacher’s hardline views on issues like immigration and isn’t put off by his embrace of Trump, observers of the district say, and there is another faction that appreciates his libertarian leanings and embrace of marijuana legalization.
“If you sit in Washington D.C., ‘oh, here’s this Rohrabacher guy, he gets mentioned by the Russians…he’s looked at by a lot of colleagues in Washington as a lightweight, he’s not known as someone who contributes financially to committees,’” said Jon Fleischman, the conservative publisher of the Flash Report, a well-regarded publication about California politics.
“But this guy is quintessentially his district. The surfing congressman, everybody knows it.”
Another challenge for Democrats is landing a candidate who can effectively litigate a case in a district that still chose Rohrabacher, even while voting against Trump. In Rohrabacher’s district, and across the country, the Democratic primary field is crowded with both moderates, such as businessman Harley Rouda, and progressives, such as architect and community activist Laura Oatman. Any candidate who could ultimately pose a credible challenge to lawmakers like Rohrabacher, who come from Republican-tilted districts, will first have to survive a primary with a base that is increasingly pushing for things like single-payer healthcare.
“In this polarizing environment, it’s going to be very difficult for somebody to run on the Democratic side and posture themselves as some sort of moderate, because the entire environment is going to force you to say…are you a Trump person or a [Nancy] Pelosi person?” Fleischman said. “The reality is, there’s no way that congressional seat elects a liberal Democrat. It just won’t. I think it’s a very challenging environment for someone to be a Democratic candidate and try to posture themselves as a centrist.”
Asked about Democratic primaries, DCCC communications director Meredith Kelly replied with an eye on retaking the House: “We reserve the right to get involved in primaries. Ultimately the job is to beat House Republicans and get to 218.”
And certainly, if Rohrabacher does find himself in a truly competitive race—which would be his first in years—he could end up more vulnerable than his winning record would suggest, some veteran political observers say.
"Once you get into a competitive situation, people are going to learn things they didn't know before," said Bill Carrick, a longtime California-based Democratic consultant. "Obviously, the Russian thing is an unusual situation, and unusual in the sense that it parallels a lot of what we hear about the Trump administration. That may make the situation even more complicated."