Rohrabacher under fire over Russia ties

Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherRussia raises problems for GOP candidates Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting MORE’s (R-Calif.) ties to Russia have become a flashpoint as the longtime congressman faces his toughest reelection to date.

Rohrabacher, who’s represented Orange County for nearly 30 years, has long been considered one of the most pro-Russia members of Congress. But recent developments in special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE’s investigation into Russia’s election interference have again put the spotlight on that relationship as Rohrabacher fights for his seat.

The congressman’s name surfaced again in connection with Russia when Richard Gates, a former campaign aide to President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE, pleaded guilty in late February to lying about a 2013 meeting between Rohrabacher, former Trump campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortFailings by WhatsApp, Signal and others highlight the need to take back our privacy The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and Congress at odds over Russia The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump eyes second Putin summit MORE and a lobbyist on Ukraine.

While recent polling shows that a majority of voters nationwide are concerned about election interference from abroad, voter backlash to Russia’s 2016 election meddling hasn’t pulled in individual members of Congress — except for Rohrabacher.

Now Rohrabacher’s Democratic opponents have seized on his Russia ties as they look to take a seat that’s a top priority for Democrats.

“He’s always been the odd man out. Now people have a reason to care [about Russia] and they have a direct way to tie Rohrabacher to it,” Fred Brown, a former Republican National Committee (RNC) official, told The Hill.

“I think this is the one area people will care about Russia in the midterms,” Brown continued, adding that Russia is just one more reason for Democrats “who have millions of motivating factors” to vote.

Rohrabacher, the chairman for the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats, has drawn scrutiny from both parties over his warm relations with Russia.

The New York Times reported in May that the FBI warned Rohrabacher in 2012 that Russian spies were trying to recruit him as an “agent of influence.”

In November, NBC News reported that Mueller was investigating a meeting that allegedly took place two months before the 2016 election between Rohrabacher and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who has since pleaded guilty and started cooperating with Mueller.

And in 2016, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders clash over resolution backing ICE House backs resolution expressing support for ICE House GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE MORE (R-Calif.) told other Republicans that he thought Rohrabacher and President Trump were on the Russian payroll, according to a recording obtained by The Washington Post. McCarthy later said he was joking.

Rohrabacher himself has continued to generate attention for his Russia ties since the 2016 election, traveling to London to visit WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who released the hacked Democratic emails during the presidential race.

Rohrabacher’s spokesman told HuffPost that Mueller hasn’t interviewed the congressman. Responding to the 2013 meeting that surfaced in the Gates plea deal, the spokesman confirmed that the meeting took place, saying it was a dinner between “two longtime acquaintances.”

“The three reminisced and talked mostly about politics. The subject of Ukraine came up in passing,” spokesman Ken Grubbs told HuffPost. “It is no secret that Manafort represented [pro-Putin Ukrainian President] Viktor Yanukovych’s interests, but as chairman of the relevant European subcommittee, the congressman has listened to all points of view on Ukraine. We may only speculate that Manafort needed to report back to his client that Ukraine was discussed.”

Now Rohrabacher’s opponents see this as another opening to tie him to Trump and Russia.

One of the leading Democratic candidates in the race, businessman Harley Rouda, launched an ad at the beginning of the year slamming Rohrabacher for his ties to Russia.

Rouda told The Hill that the Russia issue is “red meat” for Democrats but acknowledged Republicans and independents are less interested.

Stem cell researcher Hans Keirstead, a leading Democrat who won the state party’s endorsement at the convention, said Rohrabacher’s appearance in the Gates case has prompted a new level of scrutiny that Rohrabacher hasn’t seen before.

“It has drawn people to really look at the performance of this individual and basically in a way that’s never been done before,” Keirstead told The Hill. “His priorities, the way he votes — that’s never been looked at seriously.”

Rohrabacher represents one of seven GOP-held seats in California that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin Anti-Trump protests outside White House continue into fifth night Opera singers perform outside White House during fourth day of protests MORE won in 2016. Clinton’s win in Rohrabacher’s district — the first for a Democratic presidential candidate in 80 years — has prompted a number of Democrats to run. Rohrabacher is also facing primary challenges from several Republicans who have attacked his Russia ties.

The crowded Democratic field could complicate Democrats’ prospects because of California’s top-two primary system, which sees every candidate face off in an all-party primary before the top two votegetters advance to a general election runoff. Democrats are fearful that too many Democrats will split the party’s vote, leading to Rohrabacher and another Republican running in November.

And while the district’s demographics have greatly shifted since Rohrabacher first won office in 1988, Rob Pyers, research director for the nonpartisan California Target Book, noted Republicans enjoy a stronger registration advantage. Rohrabacher has the advantage of incumbency and still won reelection in 2016 by 17 points, although Cook Political Report ranks the race as a toss-up.

Rohrabacher has pushed back on criticism surrounding Russia, arguing that his expertise on Russia is helpful for his subcommittee chairmanship. He’s previously downplayed the idea that voters care about his Russia ties. Rohrabacher’s office declined to comment.

“My constituents couldn’t care less about this. They are not concerned about Russia. They are concerned about the taxes on their home. They are concerned about illegal immigrants coming into their neighborhood and raping people,” Rohrabacher told The New York Times last year.

During a recent Facebook Live town hall, Rohrabacher was asked about how he’s protecting America from Russian interference in U.S. elections.

Rohrabacher acknowledged that there’s “clear evidence” that Russians attempted to influence the 2016 election, pushing back on claims that he’s denied any interference. But he downplayed the idea that Russian meddling had any impact on the race.

“The report of the special counsel that’s been active now for a year with lots of people helping the investigation, they came out with this conclusion: There was Russian involvement but it had no impact on the outcome of the election. … There was no collusion between Donald Trump and the Russians. Zero,” Rohrabacher said.

But Trump threatens to be an even bigger drag on Rohrabacher’s reelection chances.

A poll from mid-January found that half of likely voters in the race disapprove of Trump. Among those who disapprove him, 86 percent are unlikely to support Rohrabacher for reelection. The poll also found that Rohrabacher has a negative approval rating, with 50 percent of likely voters disapproving compared to just 38 percent who approve of the congressman.

“Every time there is a story about Russia, it’s just going to remind people who this guy is and why he’s the perfect stand-in for Trump,” said Brown, the former RNC official.