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In Bid to Defeat Orange County Incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, Harley Rouda Focuses on Showing Up

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Harley Rouda, the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 48th District.  (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

In a packed courtyard outside the First United Methodist Church in the Orange County city of Costa Mesa, dozens of residents eagerly anticipated the arrival of their congressman.

Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who has represented the 48th Congresssional District since 1989, was slated to appear in a candidate forum with Harley Rouda, the Democratic challenger who is giving Rohrabacher the first competitive race of his career.

When Rohrabacher didn't show up, the event turned into a town hall for Rouda, in front of a crowd of mostly supporters.

"I wanted to see Rohrabacher. I think that he said 'no,' and that doesn’t really surprise me very much," said Sylvia Hatton, a Costa Mesa resident who said she has voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past. "I think Rohrabacher has never shown much interest in talking with the people and finding out what it is they want."

In his bid to defeat Rohrabacher in this historically Republican district, Rouda, a former Republican himself, has honed in on the most nonpartisan of messages: a critique of Rohrabacher's lack of engagement with constituents.

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"That's absolutely a huge issue," Rouda said in an interview. "He's been phoning it in. He's simply not around to meet with constituents."

Rohrabacher declined an interview for this story.

His campaign spokesman, Dale Neugebauer, said Rohrabacher "is deeply connected and engaged with the people he represents in Congress," and has held multiple meetings in recent weeks with constituents in their homes.

But Rohrabacher's decision not to hold any traditional in-person town halls since his last election has frustrated even some longtime supporters.

"I don’t really want to see the balance of power in Washington change, but I also want to see our district represented better," said Geoff West, a lifelong Republican and a former blogger on Costa Mesa municipal politics.

"[Rohrabacher] is not a bad guy, his kids trick-or-treat at my house every year, he lives two blocks from me," West continued. "I don't know who Dana listens to. He doesn’t listen to me."

West said he was open to voting for Rouda if he proved himself "a moderate Democrat."

Rouda's intent is to do just that, largely by focusing on issues as non-controversial as promising to show up at town halls. To win, he'll need to position himself as a Democrat palatable enough for independents and even some Republican voters, who still have a 10-point registration advantage in the district.

And while he courted support from progressive groups during the primary, Rouda's pitch does not center on convincing Orange County voters to embrace Democratic policies (he only joined the party in 2016).

"I am just very focused on defeating Dana Rohrabacher," Rouda said. "I'm confident that the more [voters] get to know me, the more they understand the fact that I'm a moderate."

Orange County's shift from a Republican stronghold to a political battleground can be attributed to changes in demographics more than longtime residents shifting their views leftward, said Fred Smoller, professor of political science at Chapman University in Southern California.

"People aren’t changing their attitudes. The people themselves are changing," Smoller said.

And while the 48th District is seen as a vital part of the Democratic "blue wave," demographic changes are happening a bit slower here: The coastal district (which includes Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach) has the smallest nonwhite population of the competitive Orange County congressional districts.

At the debate-turned-town hall, Rouda, given the chance to evangelize progressive policies in a church packed mostly with supporters, chose instead to emphasize moderation.

On health care, he promoted a public option, not a single-payer system favored by liberals. On immigration, he pushed back against calls to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while serving up a heavy dose of being "frustrated with both parties."

Smoller said distrust of government is still a strong political force in Orange County.

Chapman University's Orange County Annual Survey found that 42 percent of residents said the country would be the same, regardless of which party was in control of Congress.

"I don't know if they're buying into the Democratic Party platform," said Smoller, the survey's co-author. "I think they're reacting very strongly to the incumbent's behavior in office."

And Rohrabacher's behavior since the 2016 election has raised more than a few eyebrows.

The district's anti-Washington bent historically fit with Rohrabacher's reputation as a fiscal conservative who was willing to buck the party establishment on foreign policy and cannabis law.

His Orange County credentials were burnished by his image as a surfer-congressman: "Making waves in Washington, riding waves at home," has been his longtime catchphrase. Rouda, in contrast, moved to the area earlier in the decade.

But Rohrabacher's loyalty to President Trump and connection to the investigation into Russian interference (he was reportedly warned that Russian spies were trying to recruit him) have placed him in the thick of partisan crossfire.

Polling in the district has shown Rohrabacher and Rouda in a dead heat, but with independent voters widely preferring Rouda.

Those voters will be critical for Democrats' hopes in the 48th District and across Orange County.

"There’s a lot of former Republicans in that No Party Preference group who resigned from the Republican Party," said Jodi Balma, professor of political science at Fullerton College. "They aren’t willing to become Democrats, but want somebody who is rational."

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