By Andrea Adelson and Victoria Kertz | the Indys
In one of the first candidate forums in the run-up to California’s June primary, a pack of Democratic challengers for the state’s 48th congressional district will share the dais Wednesday, Jan. 10, at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort.
“All eight Democratic candidates will get together for the first time on one stage to debate the issues, said Joe Moreno, of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club, one of the event’s eight sponsoring organizations.
Incumbent Dana Rohrabacher is currently in his 15th term representing what is now California’s 48th congressional district, which spans the coastal towns of Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel. He was invited to attend the forum, but has not acknowledged the invitation, Moreno said.
A former speechwriter for fellow Californian Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher was elected to the House of Representative in 1988. He serves as chairman of the Europe, Eurasia, and emerging threats subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is vice chairman on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The Republican lives in Costa Mesa with his wife Rhonda.
The coastal region that Rohrabacher represents has undergone variations in its numeration – from 45th, 46th and now 48th — but it remains a reliably Republican stronghold. GOP voter registration in the district stands at 40.7 percent to Democrats’ 29.9 percent, according to the county registrar. Another 27.7 percent are voters without a party preference, a voter block of the disaffected that could provide a path for an outlier candidate, said James Kennedy, co-host of the political radio show Laguna Roundtable on KX 93.5 FM.
In the last 10 election cycles, Rohrabacher has trounced challengers by wide margins, winning re-election in 2016 by a 16.6 percentage spread against Suzanne Savary. His tightest race was an 11 percentage-point spread in 2008.
Yet, with Orange County voting in 2016 for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in decades, a passel of Democrats now joust to take on its Republican congressional delegation. GOP incumbents Mimi Walters and Darrell Issa, in adjoining districts, also confront a multitude of contenders.
Nowhere is the fight as fierce as in the 48th, where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won by 2 percentage points. Currently, Rohrabacher has 11 challengers, including eight Democrats, a Republican, a libertarian, and one independent. The deadline for filing is March 9, so more still may enter the crowded race.
Rohrabacher’s ties with Russia and the ongoing federal inquiry into Russian interference with the 2016 election will remain a vulnerability for the incumbent, predicted Ari Grayson, co-host of Laguna Roundtable.
Kennedy disagreed and predicted voters will vote their pocketbook. Rohrabacher’s recent vote against the tax reform bill, which includes a cap on property tax deductions, wields more influence than foreign interference. “You can’t spend on his connection to Putin,” he said.
Rohrabacher isn’t ignoring the challenge. In the past six months, he’s stepped up fundraising and as of Sept. 30 had $600,000 on hand. Reports for the fourth quarter are due at month’s end.
Declared Democratic candidates Hans Keirstead, Michael Kotick, Laura Oatman, Rachel Payne, Boyd Roberts, Harley Rouda, Omar Siddiqui and Anthony Zarkades all intend to take part in next week’s forum, the shot-gun sprint to the half-way point: the primary election of June 5.
Another debate among 48th District candidates is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 13, at Harbor View Elementary School, 4343 Pickwick Circle, in Huntington Beach. That event is organized by the Huntington Beach Huddle.
All of the contenders are a decade younger than the incumbent, who turned 70 in June. None of them have experience in politics. The exception is Scott Baugh, who served as the GOP’s Orange County chairman and in the state Assembly. He has amassed a campaign war chest of $546,000, which political strategists said was in anticipation of a vacancy in the 48th District. That didn’t occur and Baugh has yet to declare his candidacy.
The frontrunner in terms of financial support so far is Rouda, a Democrat, who has $373,000 on hand as of Sept. 30, according to campaign filings. A real estate-industry entrepreneur and attorney, Rouda drew a crowd of about 80 residents to a town hall at Bonita Creek Community Center in Newport last month.
Keirstead, a pioneering stem-cell researcher, trails him with $302,000.
Both covet financial support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which typically waits until the dust of the primary race has settled to weigh in with an endorsement. A more immediate goal is to win an endorsement of two-thirds of the delegates to the state Democratic Party convention in February.
Laguna is home to four candidates. Besides Rouda and Keirstead, Roberts and Kotick also live in town.
Newport Beach residents are among the challenger pool: Brandon Reiser, the libertarian investment manager from Corona del Mar, and Laura Oatman, a Democrat and business owner.
California uses what’s called a “top-two” system in its primaries. The two candidates with the most votes, regardless of party affiliation, get their names on the general election ballot in November. In the 2016 battle to succeed Barbara Boxer in the U.S. Senate, 16 Republican candidates so fragmented the GOP vote statewide that none were on the general election ballot. To avoid a reprise, the party made a rule change last October to endorse candidates for statewide office in the primary, Kennedy said.
Splintering of Democratic votes among eight candidates in the 48th District buoys the hopes of Reiser, the libertarian. “It’s a nice vision, a path to getting there,” said Kennedy, citing the outcome of the Senate primary, where Democrats Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez contested each other. “There’s a case for that occurring,” he said.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper based in Washington, D.C., calls the race a “toss up.” Inside Elections, another nonpartisan election watch group, predicts the 48th district will “tilt Republican,” meaning Rohrabacher is predicted to have an advantage over his challengers, none of whom are household names.
Tickets for the Newport Beach forum must be purchased and are available at eventbrite.com/e/andc-ca-48-candidate-forum-tickets-40885158610.
Dates to remember:
*March 9 is the deadline for candidates to file in the 48th District for the House of Representatives.
*June 5 is the primary election.
*Nov. 6 is the general election.
Congressional candidate Hans Kierstead’s name was misspelled in the Jan. 5 print edition of the article “Capitol Aspirations Start in Newport.”