WASHINGTON – Under normal circumstances, the realization that a sitting GOP congressman had dinner with an accused Russian spy and could be mentioned in her indictment would have the opposition party salivating.
But when Aaron McCall saw Dana Rohrabacher caught up in more drama related to Moscow – the same week the head of his party sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin over his own intelligence community – McCall was not surprised. The head of the progressive activist group Indivisible OC 48 just filed it away as another way to get voters to turn out this fall.
“When we heard about the most recent connection, it was kind of just like ‘yeah, that follows the pattern of Dana putting Russian interests over the interests of his district and country,’” McCall told USA TODAY.
McCall’s group and other Democrats are trying to flip the southern California congressional district. Their target: Rohrabacher, who has been both unapologetically pro-Russia and voted with President Trump 84 percent of the time, according to the nonpartisan analysis from FiveThirtyEight. To beat Rohrabacher, McCall and Democratic challenger Harley Rouda believe they have to target both prongs of Rohrabacher’s record.
Hillary Clinton won the district by 2 percentage points in 2016, but Rohrabacher beat his Democratic challenger by eight times that. To win the affluent beachside district, Rouda will have to engage the Democratic base and peel off independents and moderate Republican voters who previously backed Rohrabacher. The GOP congressman has been in office since 1988, but now his district is in play in November, according to nonpartisan race analysts like Cook Political Report and Inside Elections.
To target both Democrats and moderate Republicans, volunteers like McCall, knock on voters' doors armed with a handful of issues they think will appeal to them. What they talk about is different depending on who answers.
McCall recalled one voter who answered the door – with MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show" playing in the background – who said “this Russia thing is exhausting.” McCall was happy to point out that Rohrabacher has been one of Putin’s most ardent defenders for years. Conversations with voters like that, who weren’t at much risk of voting for Rohrabacher, help them commit to turn out to vote against him in the fall, McCall said.
“It’s actually to let them know they have direct power in the Russia scandal,” McCall said. “You get to recruit them to be almost a part of the Justice League. They get to be superheroes; they get to save the day.”
But there are other instances when a voter just wants to talk about jobs or other issues and Russia is never mentioned, he said.
Rohrabacher, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has long advocated for a better relationship with Russia. On Monday, Rohrabacher broke with many members of his own party to back President Trump’s controversial press conference where he failed to criticize the Russian president for interfering in the 2016 election. In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Rohrabacher said the U.S. meddled with elections at a “much higher rate” than even Russia.
Trump later tried to backtrack on his comments.
On Tuesday, Rohrabacher told Politico that he could be the congressman listed in an indictment of a 29-year-old guns rights advocate accused of being a Russian spy. Rohrabacher had dinner with Maria Butina in 2015, but said at one other GOP member and other Americans were there as well. He called the indictment “ridiculous,” “stupid” and “bogus.”
Democrats also point to the recording first reported by The Washington Post from Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who said, “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump.” McCarthy, who was speaking to GOP leaders, has said it was a poor attempt at humor.
Mike Schroeder, Rohrabacher’s political director, said that it’s normal for a senior member of the Foreign Affairs Committee to meet with people from other countries. “I seriously doubt that Harley Rouda is gonna get elected arguing the finer points of foreign policy as it relates to Russia,” he said.
“Dana’s not running on silly stuff, he’s running, for example, (on) repealing the gas tax, we don’t want (Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi)i to be speaker, that he voted against the Trump tax package because it raised his constituents' taxes,” Schroeder said. While most Republicans readily lined up behind the GOP tax plan that passed late last year, some Republicans in high tax states, like California, actually voted against it because the plan causes taxes to rise in those states.
The House Republicans' campaign arm is also supporting Rohrabacher, though they have not announced spending in the race. Spokesman Jesse Hunt said they "remain confident" the incumbent will win because he's localized the race. Hunt listed Rohrabacher's work on radar detection of sharks and airport flight patterns as two issues that matter to constituents.
Even though Rouda believes Rohrabacher’s stance on Russia is “further evidence that he is an extremist,” the Democrat agrees that he won’t be able to win on Russia alone. Rouda, a businessman, said the Democratic base absolutely cares about Russia, but he’s targeting independent and center-right voters on other issues. He said the main topics he's discussing are health care, climate change and guns.
This week, Rohrabacher was duped by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on his TV show. In the clip Rohrabacher endorses arming young children, part of a phony "Kinderguardians" program. Rohrabacher has called the show “a sick fraud” intended “to deceive the American people for political purposes.”
Rouda said the support for arming children that Rohrabacher exhibited on video “is reviled by many of the constituents here” and he wants to talk about “having common-sense solutions to addressing gun violence.”
Chris Athaide would “absolutely” be turned off if Democrats started hammering Rohrabacher’s beliefs on Russia, even though, he said, “it concerns me.”
Athaide has been a Republican all his life and is leaning towards voting for Rohrabacher again, though he hasn’t completely ruled out supporting Rouda. Athaide works as the director of new business for an aerospace company. He said the legislation being passed by the GOP majorities in Congress has been helpful to his business and he doesn’t want to give control of Congress to Democrats. That means he’s likely to vote for Rohrabacher, even if he isn’t thrilled with him.
Athaide’s wife, Brenda Merrill, who owns a consulting firm, is a Democrat who has been volunteering for Rouda’s campaign. She is focused on getting Republican women to support him. Merrill said she is revved up about Russia, but when she talks to the GOP women she'll be focused on women’s issues and climate.