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Why conservative headliners are teaming up to challenge Maxine Waters in Los Angeles

Why conservative headliners are teaming up to challenge Maxine Waters in Los Angeles
Congressional candidate Omar Navarro, left, and Trump supporter Harim Uziel livestream their counterprotest after thousands showed up at Los Angeles International Airport in February to object to Trump's ban of immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries. (Kyle Grillot / AFP / Getty Images)

Republican Omar Navarro is trying again to unseat Rep. Maxine Waters, but this time, he has a new set of high-profile friends. Trump confidant Roger Stone is a campaign advisor, former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls weekly, and far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones hosted him on his popular show.

Now a group of major GOP donors that spent millions on ads to elect President Trump also plans to take on the Los Angeles congresswoman in next year's midterm election.

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Either Trump supporters see a path to victory in a southern Los Angeles district where 60% of voters are registered Democrats, or they just want to punish one of the president's most vocal detractors, a longtime legislator who is a darling of anti-Trump liberals.

Far-right rising star Navarro says it's a bit of both.

"I had faith after Trump won that ... we could topple someone like Maxine and win," said the 28-year-old former car salesman who grew up in the district. "That's the reality of life. There are always upsets."

The 78-year-old Waters, who gained national recognition when she began calling for Trump's impeachment, has achieved icon status and a nickname: Auntie Maxine. She has long been a conservative target for her no-holds-barred critiques of GOP policy, but the newfound fame made her an even bigger source of derision.

"She certainly doesn't represent my opinion, or even come close to representing the administration's views … and frankly is very caustic in the way she approaches the policy positions the administration has put out," said Laurance Gay, managing director of Rebuilding America Now, the super PAC that says it plans to spend an undetermined amount on Waters' race. "Some of our supporters whom I've talked to both in California and around the country would like to see her not in Congress."

Rep. Maxine Waters holds up a written objection to the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6.
Rep. Maxine Waters holds up a written objection to the Electoral College vote on Jan. 6. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)
Omar Navarro appears at Politicon in Pasadena in July.
Omar Navarro appears at Politicon in Pasadena in July. (John Sciulli / Getty Images for Politicon)

On paper, it is unlikely a Republican could win the predominantly Latino and black district that includes much of southern Los Angeles along the 110 Freeway, including Torrance and Inglewood. Just 14% of voters there are registered Republicans, and the district overwhelmingly backed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Waters, who is African American, won her last few elections with more than 70% of the vote, including when she beat Navarro last year.

Though Navarro, a Latino, said he sees a path to winning by appealing to the district's growing Latino population, the candidate has made opposition to Waters a centerpiece of his campaign, relying on Republicans' dislike of her to raise thousands of dollars every time he appears on Jones' digital "Infowars" show and conservative media outlets.

"If people really want to take a jab at Maxine Waters and everything she's saying against President Trump, donate to my campaign," Navarro said on "Infowars" shortly after he announced his candidacy in late May.

"It's who he's running against obviously [that] is the big issue here, whether he wins or not," Jones, who is known for saying the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was staged to promote gun control and other theories, said on the episode.

Navarro has latched onto anti-Waters and pro-Trump enthusiasm to become a bit of a darling himself during the last year. He livestreams video from Republican book signings and rallies across the country, posting constantly on social media and tagging prominent conservative figures.

Navarro's digital savvy — he has nearly 100,000 Twitter followers — drew the interest of Stone, a longtime Republican operative who worked on Trump's campaign and is advising Navarro.

"Maxine Waters is one of the most irritating critics of the president," Stone said. "It's a symbolic race in a sense."

Navarro's campaign stunts have won him even more attention. Video that included a mariachi band playing as he announced his bid in front of Waters' home has garnered hundreds of thousands of views. Navarro called for the Secret Service to arrest Waters for saying at an LGBTQ event that she would "take Trump out tonight."

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She told CNN she was merely referring to impeaching Trump, and speculated about the motives of the people she thinks are teaming up against her.

"Those people who are so opposed to my leadership on impeachment are organizing — the right wing, the white nationalists, the KKK — they've organized an effort to try and, of course, defeat me in my election coming up and to discredit me," she said.

Waters did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Controversial former Sheriff Arpaio, who was convicted of a crime related to alleged racial profiling of Latinos and pardoned by Trump, hosted a $125-a-ticket fundraiser for Navarro at Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes last month. The event ended with a skit in which a Waters impersonator who was wearing a wig pretended to attack conservative musician Joy Villa. Navarro intervened and pulled off the Waters wig as the dozen or so attendees applauded.

The skit appears to reference an episode from last spring, when now-ousted Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said he was too distracted by Waters' "James Brown wig" hair to hear the congresswoman's speech on the House floor about patriotism under Trump. Waters response to O'Reilly, "I'm a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated," went viral.

The attention has helped Navarro's campaign, at least financially. He already has raised about $115,000 for his current bid, much more than the almost $3,000 he raised in his last race.

Most of the donations have been less than $200 each, small enough that donors don't have to identify themselves. Navarro said 40% came from Californians. He is burning through the cash quickly as he sets up a campaign infrastructure and travels to fundraisers and conservative events. He had just about $21,500 in the bank at the end of September. (Three other Republicans challenging Waters have raised little money.)

Waters has raised around $228,000 this year, but has held on to most of it.

Nonetheless, Stone said former hints of scandal make her "ripe for a campaign" and donors are willing to contribute to Navarro just to highlight Waters' past. He pointed to a nearly decade-old House Ethics Committee investigation into allegations she helped a bank in which her husband owned stock receive bailout money during the 2008 financial crisis. The committee unanimously cleared Waters.

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Navarro has issues of his own that likely will come up in the campaign.

He resigned as a Torrance traffic commissioner in July after he was accused of pepper-spraying a child while aiming for ralliers at a pro-sanctuary cities event in Cudahy. Video of the incident shows Navarro in the back seat of a car while the driver and another passenger spray ralliers. Navarro denied spraying the crowd but resigned after the Torrance City Council began the process of removing him from his position.

Navarro also pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor charge related to illegally placing a tracking device on his estranged wife's car. Navarro, who is on probation until March, brushed off the incident, saying it makes him more relatable to voters who have gotten in trouble with the law.

"Something that was in the past, is in the past. We are talking about the future," Navarro said.

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California's delegation at latimes.com/politics

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