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Could Rohrabacher’s old seat flip red in Orange County? Experts say it’s a close call

Rep. Harley Rouda and Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel
Incumbent Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) and Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel are the two candidates for the 48th Congressional District.
(Los Angeles Times )

Two years ago, Harley Rouda defeated longtime Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher as part of a blue wave sweeping across Orange County.

Sentiment against President Trump is still strong in a county that was once a bastion of conservatism but whose politics have evolved as it becomes more racially diverse and highly educated voters rebel against the Republican Party.

But with the Nov. 3 election less than a week away, Rouda faces a much different opponent in Michelle Steel and a landscape vastly changed by the coronavirus pandemic, as he fights to continue representing the 48th Congressional district, which includes much of Orange County’s wealthy coast.

Steel is Korean American, an advantage in courting the 20% of voters in the district who are Asian American. As a member of the county board of supervisors, she is steeped in local politics and has also cultivated ties to Trump.

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Republican voters turned off by Rohrabacher’s eccentricities, which included homophobic statements and a dubious preference for Russian President Vladimir Putin, could find her appealing. She has been attacking Rouda with a traditional conservative mantra — that he will raise taxes.

“Despite Californians already paying some of the highest taxes in the nation, Harley Rouda supports a 20% increase to payroll taxes for workers, condones increasing property taxes, wants to increase taxes on 401K retirement plans,” said a post on her Facebook page.

Rouda, 58, a former real estate investor who did not become a Democrat until three years ago, has pointed to a recent fundraiser where Steel and other attendees gathered indoors without masks.

“Under her leadership, Orange County residents have lost their lives and livelihoods during the coronavirus crisis,” Rouda’s Facebook page said. “Michelle Steel’s blatant disregard for the health, safety, and economic security of the community she supposedly serves is sickening.”

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The coronavirus pandemic has become a battleground for a county in political transition. Steel, 65, has won praise from Republicans for advocating to reopen local businesses.

People with American flags and red hats gather along a street
More than 1,000 people lined the roads in Newport Beach during a recent visit by President Trump.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Beaches in Orange County drew huge crowds in April, while Los Angeles County beaches remained closed. The county’s public health director resigned after facing death threats for requiring that masks be worn in public. Over the summer, churches held maskless services in Huntington Beach.

The defiance of coronavirus safety recommendations seemed a throwback to Orange County’s conservative past. But it was pushed mainly by local officials and a vocal minority of residents, said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University.

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Smoller and colleague Michael Moodian conduct a yearly survey, which has shown that Orange County residents are more progressive than such high-profile events might indicate.

The survey predicted the 2018 results, when Rouda and six other Democrats swept Orange County’s congressional seats — an epochal shift for a region long synonymous with conservatism.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race between Rouda and Steel “lean Democratic,” while calling the nearby 39th district, with incumbent Gil Cisneros going against Republican challenger Young Kim, “likely Democratic.”

Voter registration in Orange County leans slightly Democratic. The 48th district, which includes the tony coastal communities of Newport Beach and Huntington Beach, is slightly more conservative, at 33% Democrat, 38% Republican and 24% no party preference.

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Rouda managed to beat Rohrabacher, who held the seat for three decades, when the Republican voter registration edge was greater, at 10%.

But Smoller said Steel’s strength as a candidate makes this a closer contest than two years ago.

Steel is well connected in local Republican circles, he said, and Asian voters may be drawn to her because of her background.

“I think Rouda will ultimately do well and win, but that will be a tougher race,” Smoller said.

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Trump’s unpopularity in Orange County could hurt Steel.

“I think the Trump effect would lead to poor performances for Republican candidates like Steel, who has strong ties to the president,” Moodian said.

The candidates are closely matched in fundraising. As of Oct. 14, Rouda had raised $5.4 million, compared to Steel’s $5.1 million. Outside committees have contributed millions more on each side.

Rouda said he is running on a moderate, commonsense platform similar to what worked for him against Rohrabacher. Trump has led the Republican party to a place that no longer looks like traditional conservatism, he said.

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If he is reelected, Rouda said, he will continue addressing the coronavirus response, bringing the economy back and tackling climate change and off-shore drilling.

“I think we need to recognize that there are a lot of conservative values that have been the Republican platform for so long that now no longer match under Trump’s administration,” Rouda said. “People just want to go back to normal. They don’t want the divisiveness that Trump brings.”

Like many Orange County politicians, Rouda has been courting Latino and Asian voters, speaking to ethnic news outlets and running advertising in multiple languages.

About 62% of the district is white, with Latino residents at about 22% and Asian residents at 20%.

Lizanne Witte, a moderate Republican who lives in Laguna Beach, said the recent controversies over mask-wearing and other coronavirus restrictions made her feel like she was back in the old Orange County, when it was still staunchly conservative.

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She plans on voting for Rouda based on his promise to deal with climate change.

“There’s more at stake this year, and you can feel it,” said Witte, 63, who is retired. “I’ve never seen this type of division.”

Huntington Beach resident Chris Lip said he is fed up with all incumbent politicians.

He does not approve of how Democrats are responding to the pandemic, so he plans to vote for Steel.

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“The economy is hurting, and while the county did OK, I just don’t want any current officeholder to stay in office,” said Lip, a 30-year old warehouse shipping manager.


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