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Congressional primary makes rivals of two old Republican friends

A political insider goes rogue, challenges powerful friends and a core principle of his party: Thou shall not run against an incumbent.

An intriguing pitch for a TV pilot, sure, but this drama is actually the new reality facing the Orange County Republican Party.

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Republicans have a renegade in the 48th Congressional District race with former O.C. Republican Chairman Scott Baugh challenging incumbent Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa.

In 2016 Baugh told me Rohrabacher made it clear to him that he was "looking for a departure in 2016 or 2018." This prompted Baugh to file a statement of candidacy and start fundraising to the tune of about half a million dollars.

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Baugh said he wouldn't run for the seat unless Rohrabacher retired.

When that didn't happen, Baugh backed off.

That was until last week, when he pulled papers to run against his pal and challenge his party's principle.

Was his original strategy not to have a two-year fight with Rohrabacher, but rather a three-month primary battle now?

Baugh chuckles at that suggestion, saying that certainly wasn't his long-term game plan, and tells me he didn't make the decision to run lightly.

"We have big issues facing the country — from the debt, dysfunctional heath care, open borders — and we need everyone pulling together, working on solutions," he says.

Baugh points to his work as party chairman, managing opposing viewpoints and coming to consensus.

"I have a record of reaching across the aisle with the Democrats and solving problems," he says. "If you're in public office and not doing that then you're not doing your job."

Baugh explains it's not enough to "vote the right way, but more important to create the voting opportunities with coalition building," to get things accomplished.

Squarely in Baugh's corner is state Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), who understands his party won't be happy with him supporting Baugh, but there are bigger issues at stake.

Both Baugh and Moorlach feel Rohrabacher has been in this seat too long, 34 years, accomplishing nothing monumental, and it's time for a change.

Considering the current fractured state of the party, disenchanted Republican voters might welcome this shake-up, offering someone other than Rohrabacher to support.

Couple that with the fact Baugh and Rohrabacher have been long-time friends (who knows your strengths and weaknesses better than a close friend?), this is going to be an interesting battle.

As party chairman, Baugh was a maverick of political strategy and fundraising, using these skills to support his candidates, including Rohrabacher's past reelection bids.

He'll certainly be a force to reckon with.

I wondered how Rohrabacher felt about all of this, but he wasn't available for comment, according to his press person.

Rohrabacher's already facing a crowded field of Democratic opponents. If this herd doesn't thin, they risk splitting the opposing vote, because of California's open primary, which means the top-two vote-getters face off in the general election.

In this scenario Rohrabacher could win, unless he faces another strong Republican, which Baugh is.

The county party isn't happy with the prospect of this Clash of the Republican Titans.

On March 12, OCGOP Chairman Fred Whitaker sent out an email statement saying he's "fielded dozens, if not a hundred emails and phone calls, asking why the Republican Party would allow Scott Baugh's challenge to Congressman Rohrabacher in the 48th Congressional District."

"Let me reiterate, we are a republic, not a dictatorship," he wrote. "We can persuade, but we cannot prevent, nor should we want anyone to have that type of power. Party leadership actively communicated with Scott Baugh and others that challenging an endorsed Republican incumbent in good standing would not be well held."

Whitaker acknowledges he holds the chairmanship in part because of Baugh.

"I would not be chairman, but for him asking me to run to succeed him," he says. "I consider Scott to be my friend. I hope to work with him for our cause in the future. However, this path he's taken is pitting Republican against Republican, taking dollars, donors and volunteers from our efforts to fight Democrats."

Attached to Whitaker's email notice was the letter sent to Baugh urging him not to run.

"Proceeding on your current path is destructive to the Republican Party of Orange County, which you helped build," the letter warns. "It is divisive and presents an unnecessary distraction."

As I read the release and the letter, nowhere did Whitaker call out specific accomplishments of Rohrabacher over the past three decades, but rather hung on to the principle that Republicans shouldn't challenge incumbents.

​Baugh's reaction to Whitaker's letter?

"It was very immature," and dropped at his doorstep at 10:30 at night, Baugh says.

Baugh questions an attached list of names, including Orange County-area elected officials, supposedly endorsing the letter.

"About half the people either never heard of the letter or called to apologize for the letter," he says. "I also received several calls from people who were being pressured to sign it but declined. The party has some well-meaning people but they are following dogma that protects all incumbents, even those that have been there for 30 years and should retire. It's time for a change. My campaign is focused on voters, not back rooms where schemes are hatched."

Feet to the Fire plans to explore this interesting race, giving all parties an opportunity to face each other, with a candidates forum at 6 p.m. May 30 at the Orange Coast College Robert B. Moore Theater.

BARBARA VENEZIA is an opinion columnist writing political and social commentary since 2007. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com

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