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Can this Democrat crack the Trump-era election code?

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Harley Rouda at an Orange County, Calif., student-led town hall meeting. (Photo: Lara Jo Regan for Yahoo News)

LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. — There’s a story that Democrat Harley Rouda tells when he’s campaigning in California’s 48th Congressional District, a ritzy, traditionally conservative sliver of suburban Orange County shoreline that could prove pivotal in his party’s crusade to win back the House.

“When I was thinking of getting into this race, I met with a lot of Democratic leaders,” Rouda recently recalled during a gathering at Irvine’s University Synagogue. “And they all encouraged me to run. In fact, Frank Barbaro, the past chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, said to me, ‘Harley, you got a good chance of winning.’”

“I said, ‘Frank, why is that?’” Rouda continued.

“’Because you look like a Republican.’”

Last month, Rouda advanced to the general election after finishing a mere 125 votes ahead of his closest rival in one of this year’s wildest primaries — a nonpartisan free-for-all that cost a combined $12 million and at one point included eight Democrats, six Republicans and two independents. (In California’s unusual “jungle primary” system, the top two finishers proceed regardless of party affiliation.)

Now Rouda’s goal for November is to unseat the only candidate who finished ahead of him: 15-term congressman Dana Rohrabacher, an eccentric, pro-Russia Republican.

Should Rouda lose, it’s unlikely that Democrats will retake the House; most targeted incumbents are considered less vulnerable than Rohrabacher. But if Rouda wins, his campaign could answer, just in time for 2020, some of the key questions dividing his party in the Age of Trump: How progressive can we be without spooking swing voters? And how should we talk about Russia?

Back at University Synagogue, the crowd laughed, then applauded. Rouda’s story was funny — and, for Democrats desperate to flip a Republican district, encouraging — because it’s true. Rouda, 56, does look like a Republican, or at least a soap opera casting director’s idea of one: tall, tan and square-jawed as a superhero, with the tailored suit and easy smile of a man who’s already made tens of millions of dollars in real estate.

Rouda at Irvine’s University Synagogue. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

But Rouda wasn’t just telling a joke in Irvine. He was also saying something larger — something about why he thinks his campaign could be a model for the rest of his party. In 2018, the debate dividing Democrats is over which kind of candidates will give them the best chance of flipping the 23 House seats and two Senate seats they need to regain control of Congress. Some say Dems should do what they’ve done in the past: focus on centrists types who seem like good fits for their moderate districts, and who avoid polarizing attacks about Russia and impeachment in favor of a more mainstream economic message. Others insist that the old rules no longer apply. In the Age of Trump, the party as a whole is becoming louder and more leftist — and its standard bearers, they say, should reflect that new reality.

On paper, the race to replace Rohrabacher seems like a strange place to test these dueling propositions, mainly because Rohrabacher himself is such an outlier. A former folksingerlongtime surferaspiring screenwriter and early proponent of marijuana legalization, the congressman is best known nationally for his confusing coziness with the Kremlin. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Rohrabacher made it his mission to “ease the way for Russia to embrace democracy,” as a recent Los Angeles Times report put it, and he has spent the last three decades unapologetically “meeting with Russian politicians, carrying Russian-related legislation and advocating for the country and against U.S. sanctions” — an approach that has earned him the nickname “Putin’s favorite congressman.”

Speculation has long swirled about Rohrabacher’s Russia-friendly attitude, and as the investigations into Russian election meddling have intensified, his name has repeatedly cropped up. Rohrabacher once met with and then accepted a $1,000 donation from former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was lobbying on behalf of a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine at the time. Recently he has met (often multiple times) with various characters from Robert Mueller’s FBI probe, including Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin (who was present at the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr.), Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya (who also attended) and alleged Russian agent Maria Butina. Throughout, Rohrabacher has defended Trump and his associates, such as Michael Flynn, claiming just last week that “there’s not a person in this town who would not take a meeting to get material like” the dirt on Hillary Clinton that the Russians reportedly peddled at Trump Tower in 2016.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

And so Rohrabacher’s reelection race could have been a referendum on Rohrabacher alone. But then Trump came along and made Russia a national issue. In the process, the president has transformed the CA-48 contest into a preview of his looming reelection battle — an early glimpse at how Democrats can juggle competing impulses on ideology, message and Russia, and still connect with voters in places that don’t always vote Democratic.

Rouda, for one, thinks he’s cracked the code — that he’s figured out a way to please the restive Democratic base without sacrificing his crossover appeal. On one hand, he admits, it helps that he looks — and even seems, at first glance — like a Republican, with a background in business and a soothing message of “common sense” and fiscal responsibility. That, in turn, gives him license to not sound like a Republican on the subjects that most animate progressives — such as health care, Russia, and, of course, Trump.

To win, then, Rouda must toe a risky line. Halfway through his Q&A session at University Synagogue, the candidate declared that the “biggest issue” of 2018 is the fact that “institutions of our government and culture — the foundations of democracy — are now under attack.” Then he paused to recount a recent visit to Berlin’s German Historical Museum, where he was reminded that “the rise of Hitler was all based on nationalism.”

Hitler said, “‘Our country is getting screwed … [but] stand with me and we can take our country back,’” Rouda continued. “That process then evolved into the denigration of minorities as a rallying point for his base.”

The implicit comparison was lost on no one — especially after Rouda recited “First they came…,” Martin Niemöller’s famous poem about the Third Reich. Here was an Orange County Democrat openly comparing the president of the United States to Adolf Hitler — and warning that America could go the way of Nazi Germany if his power is left unchecked.

“What’s going on right now is we’ve got a president who’s trying to divide us,” Rouda concluded. “If we allow him to be successful, then our country’s going to go down a path that none of us wants to see.”

A few minutes later, a man in a polo shirt stood up.

“This room is true blue — we’re going to vote for you no matter what,” the man said. “But most people around here aren’t. How do you make the point you just made in way that won’t alienate everybody else?”

***

Two days after Rouda’s appearance at the University Synagogue, I met him at his home in Laguna Beach. Signs of a certain kind of coastal California wealth abounded: the gated entrance to his Emerald Bay community, one of Laguna’s most exclusive and expensive enclaves; the teams of gardeners tending to already immaculate yards; the $12,000 E-Z-GO golf carts parked in every driveway. Rouda’s own house is no less upscale — six bedrooms, seven baths, with Pacific Ocean views and a 2013 purchase price of $4,675,000 million — but its amenities, which include solar panels and dual Teslas, skew liberal.

Rouda at home in Laguna Beach, Calif. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

Though he insists on wearing a suit for every public appearance — “I consider this a job interview,” he likes to say — Rouda appeared at the door in off-duty attire: blue T-shirt, dark jeans, blue New Balance Coast running shoes. A Stanley Steamer crew was busy cleaning, even though the house didn’t appear to need it. The patios and public areas looked as sleek and seemingly unlived-in as a boutique hotel’s.

None of which, of course, is unusual in coastal Orange County. A Democrat winning a congressional seat, however, is another story. CA-48, which stretches from Seal Beach to Laguna Beach, includes some of California’s whitest, wealthiest and most traditionally Republican towns. For decades, Rohrabacher has capitalized on the power of incumbency and effectively buried the opposition, outspending each of his rivals by hundreds of thousands of dollars — and winning reelection 14 times by an average margin of 22 percentage points. In 2016, he defeated his Democratic opponent by more than 16.

Rohrabacher declined to talk for this story, but last year he told me that his “constituents will not be bought off by what President Trump calls ‘fake news’ — this onslaught of story after story about how heinous some aspect of Russia is.”

“Once you get past all the sinister-sounding words and the really threatening ambiance — once you get to the heart of it — you find there’s nothing there,” he continued. “My voters are smart enough to see that, so I’m confident.”

Rouda insists, however, that this election will be different. While Republicans still enjoy a local registration advantage, it has shrunk by nearly a third over the last 20 years as area voters who’ve become disenchanted with the national party’s direction and discouraged by the state party’s decline flee the GOP and reregister as Democrats or independents. Another factor is Trump, who consistently underperforms among the sort of wealthy, well-educated, suburban Republicans who exemplify prim and proper Orange County conservatism. It’s no coincidence, for example, that Hillary Clinton won CA-48 and the O.C. as a whole in 2016 — a first for a Democrat.

To defeat Rohrbacher, Rouda will have to win over a lot of these Clinton Republicans (and like-minded independents). Overall, turnout for this year’s CA-48 primary was up by a third from 2014. Still, about 10,000 more Republican voted than Democrats. This is where the whole “looking like a Republican” thing ought to come in handy.

Rouda at a town hall in Santa Ana, Calif., in July. (Photo: Lara Jo Regan for Yahoo News)

In truth, Rouda doesn’t just look like a Republican; he actually spent most of his life identifying as one. Born in Columbus, Ohio, and raised by Republican parents in a Republican neighborhood, he voted for a Republican in his first presidential election (Ronald Reagan, 1980) and continued to vote Republican for the next 20 years. Even so, Rouda was always pro-choice and “socially liberal”; meanwhile, his wife — a novelist and lifelong Democrat — kept challenging his views. As a result, Rouda reregistered as an independent in 1997, voted for John Kerry in 2004, and recoiled when George W. Bush and Karl Rove divided the country over cultural issues such as guns and gay marriage.

Still, it took Rouda another two decades to fully complete his political metamorphosis. Between 1993 and 2007, he donated nearly $10,000 to Republican candidates. He was even “considering” voting for John McCain over Barack Obama in 2008, he told me (at least until McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate). As recently as 2016, Rouda gave $1,000 to John Kasich, a family friend, and it wasn’t until 2017 — right before he announced his congressional run — that he finally reregistered as a Democrat and made his first contributions to any federal Democratic campaigns.

Given his Republican past, it isn’t hard to imagine some progressives jumping to the conclusion that Rouda is, at best, some sort of Clintonian centrist. Indeed, Rouda’s chief Democratic rival, stem-cell pioneer Hans Keirstead, spent much of the primary attacking him as a closet conservative.

Yet there’s a reason Rouda won each of the activist straw polls taken by Indivisible OC 48, the district’s biggest progressive grassroots organization — and it’s the same reason the group endorsed him two months before California’s June 5 primary. When we spoke, I asked Rouda where he stood on pretty much every hot-button issue of 2018, and as far as I could tell, the answer was always closer to Bernie Sanders 2016 than Barack Obama 2008.

On health care, Rouda believes in “opening up Medicare to individuals who want to buy into it” — a kind of “optional” Medicare for All that would, in his words, represent “a good safe first step toward something bigger.” On guns, Rouda thinks it would be “reasonable” for the rest of America to adopt California’s laws — the strictest in the nation.  On immigration, he doesn’t want to abolish ICE, but he does support the Golden State’s sanctuary policies, which he calls “a good idea” from the perspective of “stopping crime.” On education, Rouda would like to provide “free tuition to public universities and trade schools for people from lower socioeconomic levels.” And on controversial question of whether he would support impeachment proceedings against Trump, Rouda hints that he would, as long as the Mueller investigation is allowed to run its course.

Harley Rouda (Photo: Lara Jo Regan for Yahoo News)

“There have been 30 indictments,” Rouda told me. “Based on past investigations of presidents, and how wide and deep this investigation is going, and the president’s response to it … all of that would suggest with a bullhorn that there’s something there that is going to pique all of our interest and probably lead to significant grounds for impeachment proceedings if Democrats take control of Congress — and should with a Republican Congress as well.”

I asked Rouda if he considers himself a member of “the resistance.” He didn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” he said. “For me, resistance is standing up and being active in what you believe — and if what you believe is opposite the status quo, then that’s ‘resistance.’”

At a moment when Democrats nationwide are lurching sharply leftward, such views are no longer unusual. What is unusual about Rouda is the way he is presenting them to voters. Rouda spent the early part of his career as a lawyer; later, he took over his father’s regional real estate company, placed an early bet on the internet and quickly transformed the family business into one of America’s largest real estate corporations.

As Rouda attempts to convince a comfortable, temperamentally conservative district to support an agenda that his own website calls “bold [and] progressive,” his résumé seems to be serving him well. Unlike, say, Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, Rouda avoids talking about Medicare for All or free public college in moral terms; he rarely resorts to righteous “us vs. them” rhetoric. Instead, Rouda argues that progressive policies are more fiscally responsible than the Republican alternatives: a Medicare for All system would lower our health care costs by eliminating expensive ER visits and allowing the government to compete with private insurers, and free college would improve America’s economic competitiveness by preparing graduates for the future of work.

And though it may have been a liability in the primary, Rouda is convinced that his political conversion story will boost his chances in November. He insists that he’s not alone in his evolution — “even more so in this district than other districts” — and that he knows how to connect with local Republicans and independents because of it.

“Prior to Trump, there was discomfort around here with the Republican Party’s agenda on social issues, but people could still stomach it,” Rouda told me. “Trump has changed everything. Now, pragmatic, rational Republicans are saying enough is enough.”

Near the end of our interview, I asked Rouda about Russia. Like impeachment, the issue has sparked fierce infighting among national Democrats. Some have seized on it as a rallying cry for the base; others say that swing voters will dismiss it as a distraction. Rouda is happy to knock Rohrabacher for his involvement, but as the only candidate in the country currently running against someone as mixed up in the whole meddling affair as Trump, he also thinks he’s hit on a message that makes the scandal seem relevant to people who aren’t watching MSNBC every night.

Rouda with students in Santa Ana, Calif., July 28, 2018. (Photo: Lara Jo Regan for Yahoo News)

“The further to the right you go, the more people hesitate to question whether this is an issue,” Rouda said. “But here’s what I’ve found when I talk to voters. I ask them about Dana Rohrabacher’s multiple trips to Moscow. I ask about him meeting with people who’ve been indicted and constantly supporting Putin and Trump’s efforts to have a relationship with Putin. And I say, ‘How’s that helping your business? How’s that creating jobs here? How’s that helping your family, your kids?’ And when it’s put in that context, I haven’t met a voter yet who’s hasn’t been like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Why is he spending so much time there instead of spending time on what we need here?’”

***

Back at Irvine’s University Synagogue, the crowd — mostly middle-aged or older, and mostly women — were raising their hands, one after the other, with questions for the candidate. As donors to DemOC, the local political action committee sponsoring the event, they mostly wanted to know about strategy, and Rouda, perhaps because he is a first-time politician, was remarkably open about the inner workings of his campaign. At one point, Jane Benning, a gynecologist from Newport Beach, asked a question that seemed to sum up what everyone was thinking.

“Given that you’re going up against a long-term, entrenched incumbent, what new strategy do you have that is different from the other Democrats before you who have run and lost?” she shouted from the back of the room.

Rouda mentioned money: He’s already raised $2.7 million, or $1 million more than Rohrabacher (and $2.6 million more than the Democrats’ last CA-48 nominee). He mentioned the 2,000 volunteers he signed up during primary season, and how a full 1,000 of them showed up for a canvassing kickoff just last Sunday. He mentioned how his campaign has been “microtargeting” CA-48’s Hispanic electorate (20 percent of the overall population) and Asian electorate (18 percent), as well as “moderate Republican women” who are “aghast at what’s happening on the border with family separations and worried about a women’s right to choose.” He mentioned a new Monmouth University poll — the first reliable, nonpartisan survey of the race — that shows him leading his Republican rival 46 percent to 43 percent. And he made sure to point out that “no California incumbent did worse than Dana Rohrabacher” in the primary.

“He finished with 30 percent of the vote,” Rouda said. “That means 70 percent of voters wanted somebody else.”

Photo: Lara Jo Regan for Yahoo News

In response, Rohrabacher spokesman and political director Mike Schroeder points out that his boss still bested Rouda by 13 percentage points in the primary, and he claims that Rouda’s background and progressive positions won’t play well in the general election.

“Ronda is a limousine liberal who lives in a Laguna Beach mansion behind a guard gate. Dana lives in an open neighborhood in Costa Mesa, where he knows his neighbors and has an annual Fourth of July party,” Schroeder tells Yahoo News. “Once people learn how far out of the mainstream Rouda is, much of his support will evaporate.”

After the University Synagogue event, I caught up with Jane Benning. A lifelong liberal, she spent decades concealing her politics to avoid clashing with conservative patients. But after Trump’s election, Benning became “activated,” she said, attending last year’s Women’s March in Laguna Beach and “keeping [herself] sane” by continuing to congregate with local Democrats. I asked Benning what she thought of Rouda.

“He just comes across as real electable,” she replied. “He’s articulate. He’s got the appearance. …”

She trailed off. “Of a Republican?” I offered.

Benning laughed. “As he said,” she continued. “And I know he used to be one. But he comes across as sincere in holding liberal Democratic political views. He’s evolved. We should all be allowed to evolve.”

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