Candidate Trump rejected the sunny, libertarian-inflected conservatism of Ronald Reagan and steered the Republican Party toward a vulgar, anti-immigrant, anti-free-market populism. The approach helped get him into the White House. But it was a poor fit for the historic Republican stronghold of Orange County: A prosperous, ethnically diverse area where crime is low and the gains from foreign trade are many. Come election day, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Orange County in 80 years.
The outcome didn't surprise me, and not just because the county’s demographics are changing. In Orange County’s 48th Congressional District, where I grew up, restaurant patrons wear flip-flops to dinner. Bars play surf videos as often as football. It is high praise to be described as "laid-back" or "chill." Little wonder that it rejected a boorish avatar of outer-borough braggadocio. Yet Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and surrounding cities in the 48th did reelect longtime GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who has become one of President Trump's most stalwart allies. How long can the 30-year veteran of Washington, D.C., last? Can he win reelection in 2018?
Democrats are aggressively targeting his seat in their effort to retake control of the House of Representatives. Possible Democratic opponents include a stem cell scientist, a real estate entrepreneur and a Nestle executive. The longtime incumbent even faces at least two challengers from his own party. Stelian Onufrei, who owns a construction business, said he would contribute $500,000 to self-fund his challenge. Writer Paul Martin self-describes as a "Reagan Republican" and is critical of the Trump administration.
The Cook Political Report says the perennially "safe" seat is now "a toss-up."
Rohrabacher’s opponents see his behavior toward Russia as a vulnerability. A longtime proponent of closer ties with Moscow, Rohrabacher has been an occasional apologist for Russian President Vladamir Putin's imperial foreign policy and has cultivated ties with Kremlin-connected Russians. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) once declared in a private meeting of GOP officials: “There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump." McCarthy later insisted he was joking.
The insinuations may be unfair. Hard evidence of wrongdoing with regard to Russia is thin, and Washington has a sordid history of lashing out at dissenters from establishment foreign policy.
That's why the more potent critique would focus on Rohrabacher's priorities. Whatever one thinks of Russia, it’s hard to believe that’s where the residents of Seal Beach or Laguna Niguel want their representative focusing his time, energy and public statements. These are communities where housing costs are high, traffic is increasingly gridlocked, infrastructure improvements are lagging and homelessness is more widespread than ever in recent memory. And, of all things, Rohrabacher is trying to set up a meeting with President Trump about Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, whom he traveled abroad to meet on his own dime. It's as if he's trying harder to help Fox News with its story lines than his constituents with their real-life problems.
He hasn't totally lost his libertarian streak. As I write, the lead video on Rohrabacher’s website features him speaking out against asset forfeiture on the House floor, and he favors medical marijuana. Normally I'd be loath to lose a congressman of that sort. But what's the use of holding those sensible positions if he meanwhile works to empower an administration that has loosened restrictions on asset forfeiture and pushed a drug war approach to weed?
The contradiction seems lost on the incumbent.
“These people aren’t going to vote for Democrats,” Rohrabacher told the Washington Post's Dave Weigel last spring, dismissing the notion that he is vulnerable. “A lot of Republican women voted for Hillary. That is not going to translate into anything next year. Trump is a very boisterous guy, and that was a turnoff for some people, but these are Reagan-type conservatives.”
But that's the thing: Dana Rohrabacher isn't a Reagan-type conservative anymore. Trumpism is a repudiation of Reaganism; by embracing it, Rohrabacher has betrayed his political heritage.
Allying with Trump will certainly cost the incumbent among Democrats, Latinos, Asian Americans and other growing Orange County demographic groups that Trump has so alienated. Insofar as Reaganism really lives on in the 48th, its adherents will oppose this incumbent, too. Unprincipled populists are always anathema to principled conservatives, and most of all when the populism isn't even in service of constituent interests.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.