After Harley Rouda declared himself the winner of the 48th Congressional District race on Nov. 10, followed soon after by the Associated Press confirming the Laguna Beach Democratic businessman’s assessment, incumbent Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher did what close followers of the Republican’s 30-year career in the House of Representatives should have expected: He refused to accept reality.
That’s no surprise given the 71-year-old firebrand’s stands on health care, immigration, gun control, climate change, geopolitics, LGBTQ rights . . . the list goes and on.
The Orange County Registrar of Voters had Rouda up by 10,598 votes as of 5 p.m. Nov. 13. A week after the Nov. 6 midterm election, the raw numbers were 118,210, or 52.3 percent, for Rouda and 107,612 (47.7 percent) for Rohrabacher. When the 56-year-old Democrat made his announcement the morning of Nov. 10, his lead was 7,328 votes. He had gone to bed election night with slightly more than 2,000 votes more than Rohrabacher.
It’s considered trending upward when a gap widens with each successive new official count, and with no indication of a reversal of fortune, that’s generally when the runner-up does the honorable thing: Thanks his or her supporters, congratulates the winner for a hard-fought campaign, and then moves on.
As of press time, Rohrabacher had not done that. In fact, his campaign had not posted a new Facebook message since election day, when people were urged to get out and vote. There had not been a tweet since Nov. 4, when he thanked President Donald Trump for endorsing him. His official House and campaign websites had not been updated since Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, respectively.
Of the dozens of news outlets that reported Rouda won—and were monitored for this story—only FOX News and the Associated Press had an official non-response response from the Rohrabacher campaign. It was the same thing spokesman Dale Neugebauer said on Nov. 8: The congressman would have no comment until thousands of outstanding mail-in, absentee and overseas ballots had been counted. “We expected this to be a close race,” Neugebauer told the Los Angeles Times, “and that we might have to endure California’s absurdly long ballot-counting process.”
Whatever the outcome, it is clear that Rohrabacher’s coastal Orange County district underwent radical change since the 2016 election. Yes, the incumbent won by nearly 17 percentage points that November, but Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton also got almost 2 percent more votes than Republican Trump did in the same district. That dynamic prompted labor, Democrat and progressive forces to dump tons of money and resources into the 48th’s primary and general election races.
Facing Rouda—a billionaire real-estate executive who for decades was a registered Republican and rent-control foe who contributed to GOP presidential hopeful John Kasich in 2016—Rohrabacher initially laughed off the notion that he could lose, claiming he knew district voters better than anyone. By the way, that’s the same thing bombastic Congressman Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan (R-Garden Grove) said before his surprising and historic defeat by Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996.
Rohrabacher’s mindset heading into the election does not read as off the wall when you consider the champion for term limits won his first general election in 1988 with 64 percent of the vote and, before 2018, only dipped below 55 percent in a general election one other time—in 2008, when he beat popular Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook, 53 percent to 43 percent.
The Surfin’ Congressman eventually got the message that he was facing his most serious challenge ever. Political handicappers changed what had been a solidly GOP district to a “toss-up.” Most pre-election polls had the race neck-and-neck, and even those that identified a candidate as the frontrunner noted that the percentage gap was small, the number of undecideds was sizable and the margin of error meant nothing was guaranteed. It truly would come down to who got out the vote.
To that end, Rouda built a $6.3 million campaign war chest to his opponent’s nearly $2.2 million booty, and the Democrat headed into October with nearly $1.5 million left versus $505,000 for Rohrabacher.
For demonstrations of how Rohrabacher was aware he was in the fight of his life, one need only look at the draft-dodging chickenhawk’s campaign advertisements. “Republican,” which in years past had been his biggest selling point, went missing from his mailers. With #Indivisible48 having made the assault on the Affordable Care Act a campaign issue since Trump’s election, the congressman—who voted 17 times against Obamacare—appeared with his wife and their leukemia-surviving daughter to claim the health-care issue was “personal” to him and that he was “taking on both parties and fighting for those with pre-existing conditions.”
The staunch Trump ally and “Putin’s favorite congressman,” as he was known even to those in his own party, began giving statements claiming he would defy the American and Russian presidents if they supported things he opposed.
But it wasn’t enough because, in the end, reality bit.
In the interest of fairness—I know, why start now?—there are many people in the 48th District who are not glad to see Rohrabacher go. His remaining in office was desired by canna-biz potrepreneurs (because Dana has been their biggest advocate on the Hill); certain outer-space watchers (because Dana supports the privatization of space travel and the blowing up of near-Earth asteroids); and alt-right, neo-Nazi, white nationalist/supremacist fanboys (because Dana is . . . well . . . Dana).
Then there are the longtime friends and backers of Rohrabacher who resemble your humble reporter: old, white, male, pot-bellied and unfashionably dressed. I bumped into several at the candidate’s somber election-night party at his unofficial district office, Skosh Monahan’s Irish pub and grill, which overlooks the end of the 55 freeway in Costa Mesa. Walking through the main entrance after polls closed at 8 p.m., this visitor was not greeted by a room full of energetic Rohrabacher supporters, but rather bored-looking television-news teams, a smattering of customers and a confused-looking Dana backer or three.
For an idea of how much the 48th District has changed, one needed to go from there to Rouda’s much more boisterous gathering that filled a blimp hangar-sized ballroom at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Spa, which faces the tony Fashion Island shopping and entertainment destination. Around 10 p.m., but before any significant election results had been posted, you would have thought you were walking into a multicultural victory celebration. Whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos filled the room, which I’d wager had a 60-40 split between those younger than 30 and those you shouldn’t trust.
The messages each candidate delivered to supporters that night were also reflective. Rohrabacher seethed as he mentioned his opponent spent a lot more money than he did, lamented the “billionaires” who influenced the race and claimed that Rouda voters don’t share American or Republican ideals. (He got that half right if he’s talking about the ideals of today’s Trumpian GOP.)
Over by the outdoor mall that Donald Bren built, Rouda also spoke off the cuff, albeit much more eloquently, as he touched on how Trump’s election and the women’s march shortly after that caused him to toss his hat in the ring.
Rouda’s overall message was one of inclusion, not exclusion: “We are the people who believe in equal rights and women’s rights. We are the people who believe our diversity is what makes us great. We are the people who believe in campaign-finance reform that is needed now more than ever. We are the people who believe health care, Medicare and Social Security is a right for all. We are the people who believe in common-sense solutions to gun violence. We are the people who believe in saving our environment and saving our planet while creating clean technology jobs. We are the people who believe our businesses and community come first.”
After thanking his wife, Kaira, a gesture that received such a thunderous response that her husband suggested she should run for office, Rouda announced that he and his family would be stepping off the stage and into the crowd to thank everyone—and he actually kept his word. (He really is new to politics.) By contrast, Rohrabacher and those on his guest list mostly remained in a guarded room upstairs from the bar.
At midnight, one of Rouda’s sons returned to the podium to announce that his dad, who had been up by 800 votes only moments before, now was leading by 2,000, which prompted the crowd to go bonkers. They sensed a rebirth of the audacity of hope.
And the last stand of Dana Tyrone Rohrabacher.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.