Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has lost the congressional seat he held for 30 years in one of the most conservative stretches of Orange County, a stunning defeat for the GOP as other Republicans’ early leads receded in the latest ballot counts, putting the party in fear of losing all six tightly contested House races in California.
The defeat to Democrat real estate entrepreneur Harley Rouda represents a landmark shift away from the GOP for suburban America. No county — no part of a county — has been at the heart of conservatism since the 1960s like the coast between Dana Point and the Los Angeles County line.
This was John Wayne country.
Even now Republicans have a 10-point voter registration advantage in Rohrabacher’s 48th Congressional District — but President Trump and his supporters in Congress do not.
The loss was projected Saturday night by the Associated Press. Dale Neugebauer, a spokesman for Rohrabacher, noted that there were more ballots to be tallied and the campaign would not have an official statement until the count was complete.
Rouda, a former Republican, had already declared victory Saturday morning, saying he was “deeply humbled and honored to have the opportunity to serve.”
Rouda’s win came after two decades of erosion in the Republican base and at a time when Rohrabacher’s ties to Russians have become more controversial.
“The Russian thing was ridiculous,” said Tony Quinn, demographer and California campaign analyst. “That didn’t help him.”
Neither did his support for the president.
During the election, Rohrabacher, a speechwriter for President Reagan, doubled down on his advocacy for Trump and his hard-line immigration policies — neither of which are popular in the college-educated suburbs he represented. And his vocal support for President Vladimir Putin became a heavy liability after Russia’s suspected meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Few members of Congress have been as enigmatic as Rohrabacher: a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Orange County surfer who has crusaded with equal quixotic passion for the Kremlin and federal marijuana legalization — and once took up arms with the mujahedin in Afghanistan.
He has been an avuncular presence in his district, going to Eagle Scout badge-pinning ceremonies, speaking at junior high schools, opening yacht club sailing seasons in Newport Harbor.
Rohrabacher, 71, of Costa Mesa, had not had a serious challenge to the seat until this year, when discontent with Trump ran high in the 48th.
“The district became much more of an anti-Trump suburb, and he no longer connected to the people there,” Quinn said. “He had an opponent who was a former Republican businessman, not some wild-eyed lefty. And for at least two years, people were willing to try something new.”
It is a stark change for the region once embodied by the legendary movie cowboy John Wayne — its international airport’s namesake — who was an ultra-right John Birch Society member and lived on the harbor in Newport Beach.
Republicans have now lost three of the six races Democrats targeted most in the state. They have fallen behind or are holding thin leads in the remaining unresolved races, as suburban voters nationwide rebuked Trump and his allies in the House of Representatives.
Democrats earlier won the seats of GOP Reps. Darrell Issa of Vista, who declined to seek reelection, and Steve Knight of Palmdale, who was ousted by Katie Hill.
On Friday, Democrat Josh Harder overtook Republican Rep. Jeff Denham in the latest tally in a Modesto-area district.
In two other races, GOP Rep. Mimi Walters, who represents the Irvine area, and Republican candidate Young Kim of Fullerton are holding thin leads over their Democratic opponents, who have gained votes with each ballot count since election night.
With the three losses, Republicans will hold, at most, 11 of California’s 53 seats in the House. Overall, Democrats are now in a position to make the greatest gains their party has seen in the chamber since Watergate.
“This is more than just a bad year,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP political strategist. “This is essentially a realignment in California politics, and the traditional base that has served the Republican Party no longer exists.”
Madrid said “a clean sweep” of GOP incumbents was possible. He said he expects the party to see worse results in 2020 because it didn’t have “leadership with the strength and the foresight to get us out of this.”
Election officials could take several more weeks to tally up the final ballots. As of Saturday, 934,000 ballots remained uncounted in Los Angeles County alone.
In Orange County, 365 employees have been working 12 hours a day, six days a week, to process 365,000 uncounted ballots. Saturday’s tally gave Rouda a lead of more than 8,500 over Rohrabacher.
Walters has seen her election-night lead of 6,233 votes plummet to 2,009 in her race against Democrat Katie Porter. Kim’s lead against Democrat Gil Cisneros has shrunk from 3,879 to 2,423 votes in a congressional district containing pieces of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist in Sacramento, called the ballot counts a “slow-moving train wreck” for Republicans.
“I believe Mimi Walters and Young Kim are breathing a little easier, but it is not done yet,” Acosta said. “Count the ballots before you spike the ball.”
Historically, votes tallied latest in the state have tended to skew Democratic.
Denham on Friday fell 3,362 votes behind Harder after leading the Democrat by 1 percentage point in a district spanning Stanislaus County and southern San Joaquin County. Harder called the latest results “extremely encouraging.”
San Joaquin County, where 91,700 ballots remain uncounted, is expected to release its next round of results on Tuesday. Stanislaus County elections officials plan to tabulate all their remaining uncounted ballots — roughly 20,000 — before releasing more results.
“If the trend continues, I will work every single day in Congress to put the Central Valley first,” said Harder, who had volunteers from across the state pour into his district in the final days of the election to knock on doors and get out the vote.
Times staff writer Maya Sweedler contributed to this report.