Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican facing a potentially difficult re-election this fall, occupies an unusual space in politics.
Unlike countless other key congressional races across the country, Russia and the swirl of news regarding special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation is uniquely relevant to his re-election bid because of the Orange County Republican’s persistent advocacy of closer relations with Moscow. It’s position that has derisively earned him the moniker “Putin’s favorite congressman” and tied him into the daily trickle of news on possible collusion in the 2016 election.
Democrats running across the country have largely stayed away from talking about Russia, choosing instead to focus on issues like health care, taxes and education. And this race is no different.
On the ground here in the beachside community Rohrabacher has represented since 1989 and as voters decide between a massive slate of sixteen candidates in Tuesday’s primary, even Democrats hellbent on ousting Rohrabacher from office think their congressman’s ties to Russia are unlikely to lead voters to the polls.
Both top Democrats running for the seat – businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead – told CNN that they don’t see the connections as central to their argument against Rohrabacher, despite using it occasionally in digital ads and conversations. Both said the issue may cause people to look harder at Rohrabacher, but as Keirstead put it, his campaign has not found it is not “something that causes people to vote one way or another.”
Other local Democrats agree.
“It just does not seem like it is a real motivating factor for most people,” said Laura Oatman, a Democrat who was once running to replace Rohrabacher. The 58-year old architect dropped out once it seemed possible that too many Democrats on the ballot could lead to two Republicans moving onto the general election, due to California’s unique “jungle primary” system.
Since Oatman dropped out after the filing deadline, her name will still appear on the ballot. But she has endorsed Rouda and asked her supporters to vote for him.
“You walk up and down this street and ask every person whether they cared or worried about Russia and connections to Dana Rohrabacher, they’d shrug their shoulders,” she said, strolling up Main Street in Huntington Beach, blocks away from Rohrabacher’s office.
Michael Kotick, another Democrat who dropped out of the race and endorsed Rouda, agreed.
“I don’t think it moves voters,” he said. “There are so many other issues that are close to home - health care, students loans, affordable housing, offshore drilling - these are things that people can touch and feel and smell and no one can touch the investigation.”
Serving as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, Rohrabacher has persistently advocated for closer US relations with Moscow, regularly taking Russia’s side in public debates and backing some of President Donald Trump’s controversial comments on the country. The congressman seems to embrace his pro-Russia reputation and has even bragged about arm-wrestling and playing soccer with Vladimir Putin in the early 1990s.
“We started arguing about who won the Cold War. And so we decided to settle it like men do when they’ve had too much to drink in the pub. So we got to these arm wrestling matches, and I ended up being paired off with Putin,” Rohrabacher said during a 2013 interview with KPCC, a California public radio station. “He’s a little guy, but boy, I’ll tell ya. He put me down in a millisecond! He is tough. His muscles are just unbelievable.”
While those comments have drawn Democratic attention to the race, the fact that Democrat Hillary Clinton won the district by 2% in 2016 has landed it as a top 2018 target.
Nearly every Tuesday since the 2016 election, a group of Democratic activists – organized by the local chapter of Indivisible – have rallied outside Rohrabacher’s office to call for his ouster. Though some carry signs about Putin, Russia and President Donald Trump, almost all said it wasn’t part of their pitch to voters.
“Most people are voting on how their wallet feels, do they have someone who is a DACA person who is in jeopardy,” said Kathleen Rockney, despite that fact that she was holding a sign featuring a fake picture of Trump and Putin shirtless on the back of a horse. “I think it is always personal issues to the voter.”
Maxine Maly, a local Democratic activist, agreed, begrudgingly.
“It doesn’t move voters in our district,” she said, holding a sign. “It is very bothersome to me.”
Rohrabacher hopes that is the case and told CNN in an interview that he believes his long-standing ties to Moscow and connections to key individuals of interest to both lawmakers and federal investigators in the Russia probe will not hurt his re-election campaign.
“The Democrats are learning now there’s a big blowback to insulting the intelligence of the American people with this phony PR campaign that’s aimed at trying to prevent President Trump from assuming the rightful authority that was given to him by the voters,” he said.
“And my people are patriotic, and they see this as an act that is undermining the very democratic institutions that have always given America the edge. When you lose an election, you lose the election. You let the other guy govern,” he added.
A self-proclaimed “Libertarian conservative,” Rohrabacher is a sharp skeptic of the widely held view in Congress, and from US intelligence agencies, that Russia meddled in the US elections – maintaining that Mueller’s probe is a “non-sensical witch-hunt” and the 2016 DNC hack was “an inside job.” The inside-job claim has been featured on Russian state-run media, but flies in the face of the official conclusions by the CIA, FBI and US intelligence community.
Rohrabacher has spoken with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees about his Russian ties and his interactions with Julian Assange after he visited the Wikileaks founder at the Ecuadorian embassy in London last summer. He told CNN he has yet to speak to Mueller’s team.
His deputy chief of staff, Paul Behrends, who also has Russia contacts, has spoken to the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to Rohrabacher’s spokesman. Behrends was reportedly ousted from his role on the House Foreign Affairs Committee amid scrutiny of his Kremlin-friendly views.
The most vociferous attacks Rohrabacher has taken on Russia have surprisingly come from a member of his own party and a onetime protégé: Scott Baugh, the former Republican leader of the California State Assembly.
Baugh released an ad last month – which ran locally on cable – knocking Rohrabacher for taking trips on taxpayers dime to promote Russia.
“And he’s taken 172 foreign trips on our taxpayer tab to promote marijuana and Russia,” the baritone narrator ominously said, with a picture of Putin prominently displayed on screen.
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.
This story has been updated to properly reflect when Oatman dropped out of the race.