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In deepest red Orange County, a blue flame is sparking in a district that has long supported Rep. Rohrabacher

In deepest red Orange County, a blue flame is sparking in a district that has long supported Rep. Rohrabacher
Joni Nichols, a volunteer for Harley Rouda's campaign, has turned her Balboa Island home into a hub for canvassers. She feels that incumbent U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a 15-term Republican, is out of step with his constituents, including his belief that climate change is a hoax. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There is nothing quite like the last days of a close campaign, when hope, anxiety and fatigue collide. Even personal hygiene can take a hit.

“I’ve been wearing the same clothes for two days,” said Joni Nichols, whose wardrobe lately has consisted entirely of rotating Harley Rouda T-shirts and jeans. “I have a triple X size for sleeping.”

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I bumped into Nichols on Sunday, while driving around ultra-conservative Balboa Island, looking for signs of a blue wave.

Balboa, part of the hotly contested 48th Congressional District, is nestled in the middle of sparkling Newport Bay, home to some of the richest Californians. With about 3,000 residents squeezed into a mere 128 or so acres, Balboa Island has a higher population density than San Francisco. The houses here, on small lots, are cheek-by-jowl, with small frontyards and no backyards to speak of. They might be overbuilt Italianate mini-villas, Cape Cod fantasies or old wooden beach shacks, but they are all very expensive. Residents, for the most part, are affluent, older, white and Republican. They fly a lot of flags. American flags, mostly, but a lot of USC flags, too.

On Diamond Avenue, I spotted Nichols’ house. How could you miss it?

Her second-story balcony is festooned with a giant black-and-white banner: “Dump Dana Rohrabacher 2018.” A sign on her white picket fence declares “30 Years is enough! Say no to Rohrabacher.”

In her small frontyard, Nichols, 68, a wiry midwife and doula who lived and delivered babies in Guadalajara for many years, was explaining to volunteers how to knock on doors, how to talk to voters and how to record voter interactions. The effort is aimed at electing the neophyte Democratic candidate Harley Rouda, who is trying to unseat the longtime Republican incumbent congressman, Dana Rohrabacher.

Nichols, who described herself as “something between room mother, mayor, commander, confessor, debriefer and homemade bread maker,” has opened her home to Rouda volunteers every Sunday since the end of August. Some of her neighbors, she said, have been less than approving about her activism. But a few, she said, have told her they will vote for Rouda out of respect for her dedication.

The race is one of the most closely watched in the country. Polls show it is a virtual tie. Flipping the reliably Republican 48th District is something Democrats have not really dared to dream about.

Until now.

A statue of President Reagan adorns a Balboa Island waterfront home in Newport Beach. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, facing a serious challenge for the first time in 30 years, was a speechwriter for Reagan.
A statue of President Reagan adorns a Balboa Island waterfront home in Newport Beach. U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, facing a serious challenge for the first time in 30 years, was a speechwriter for Reagan. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“There is so much vibrant energy here,” Nichols said. “Just a real clamor to do something.”

That may be, but at least one house on the island had a sign declaring President Trump’s supporters “the silent majority.”

Fonda Berosini came from Hollywood to canvass for Rouda. In the same way that many people were not vocal about their support for Trump, she thinks Rohrabacher may have more support than meets the eye. “People supporting Harley are more proud of it,” she said, “than the people supporting Dana.”

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Rohrabacher is a 71-year-old surfer and self-described “free spirit” whose libertarian streak has devolved over the years into something approaching parody. He’s pro-cannabis, pro-Russia and pro-offshore oil drilling. He thinks global warming is a “total fraud.” He said the deadly pro-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville was “a total hoax” and “a set-up for these dumb Civil War reenactors.”

He has been seen as so sympathetic to Vladimir Putin that in 2012, he was warned by the FBI that Russians were trying to recruit him as a spy.

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Recently, a group of Realtors rescinded its endorsement of him after he said that homeowners should not have to sell to gay buyers if they don’t like their “lifestyle.”

He has uttered so many off-the-wall statements that Rouda’s campaign has collected them into a little red book, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again: 48 Baffling and Dangerous Quotes From Dana Rohrabacher.”

A video, featuring celebrities such as Cheryl Hines, Chelsea Handler and Eric McCormack reading the quotes, has been making the rounds on social media.

Balboa Island resident Dennis Bress, a Democrat who is volunteering with the Harley Rouda campaign, has been making and giving out "Republicans for Harley" signs in Newport Beach. He can't keep up with demand.
Balboa Island resident Dennis Bress, a Democrat who is volunteering with the Harley Rouda campaign, has been making and giving out "Republicans for Harley" signs in Newport Beach. He can't keep up with demand. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Rouda, 56, is a real estate magnate who moved from Ohio to Laguna Beach 10 years ago, at his wife’s insistence.

Kaira Rouda is a writer and, as it happens, a lifelong Democrat. Her most recent novel, “Best Day Ever,” she told me, is a domestic thriller, featuring a seemingly perfect husband who spirits away his wife for a “special” weekend.

Her husband came to the party slowly. He was a registered Republican until 1997, then changed his status to independent. In 2016, he registered as a Democrat. In some ways, his evolution is a mirror of the 48th District itself, which is slowly morphing into a less conservative place.

Rouda describes himself as a centrist and pragmatist who has been buoyed not just by voters’ disdain for Trump, but what he perceives as voter fatigue and frustration with Rohrabacher, an immigration hardliner who voted 17 times to repeal Obamacare, and is now touting his commitment to healthcare coverage for those with preexisting conditions, an awkward dance many endangered Republicans are attempting this cycle. Rouda was also helped by a last-minute cash infusion from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who pumped $4.4 million into ads attacking Rohrabacher for his stance on global warming.

“I want to share some good news,” Rouda told dozens of upbeat volunteers Sunday at his Costa Mesa headquarters. “The polls either have me down two or up one. All the polls are based on voter turnout models. Which means what? If we get out the vote, we win.”

::

I wanted to spend some time with Rohrabacher supporters, but his campaign spokesman told me the congressman had no events on Sunday that I could attend. He said he would “consider any questions” I might have. When I asked for a brief interview with Rohrabacher instead, the spokesman did not respond.

The calculation, I assume, is that there is no upside in talking to journalists.

That disengagement has extended to constituents, which has cost him.

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“I just don’t feel like he’s representing the people of Orange County,” said Cliff Wendt, 65, who lives in the Seaview neighborhood of Newport Beach. He had just finished knocking on doors for Rouda, and was encouraged by what he heard.

“I thought my neighborhood was red, but it isn’t,” he said. “People are disgusted with the political atmosphere, and all the manufactured outrage.”

Still, the challenge facing Rouda is bigger than voters’ feelings about Rohrabacher. For many voters, the calculation is about control of the House, and the potential return of that liberal demon, Nancy Pelosi.

Late Sunday afternoon, as Nichols chatted with the volunteers, including Dennis Bress, a neighbor and sign maker who cannot keep up with the demand for “Republicans for Harley” signs, an older man who said his name was Tom stopped for a moment as he walked by.

Tom said he was tired of Rohrabacher — really doesn’t like the guy — but he wasn’t sure he could vote for Rouda. “I don’t want Nancy Pelosi,” he said. “I don’t want socialism.”

Nichols raised her eyebrows, but didn’t respond.

When Tom strolled off, she told me about a spat that one of her Balboa Island friends had with a neighbor who — without permission — put a Rohrabacher sign on her tall hedge. The friend called police to get it down.

When Nichols helped her friend replace it with a Harley Rouda sign, the next-door neighbor came outside and called them “[expletive] communists.”

Ah well, it is Orange County, after all.

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