Dems fear shutout in bid to take down GOP's Rohrabacher

Dems fear shutout in bid to take down GOP's Rohrabacher
© Greg Nash

Three candidates are furiously jockeying for the right to face off against vulnerable Rep. Dana RohrabacherDana Tyrone RohrabacherThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump, Biden go toe-to-toe in Iowa Ex-GOP lawmakers are face of marijuana blitz Former GOP Rep. Rohrabacher joins board of cannabis company MORE (R-Calif.) in what’s become a roller coaster of a California primary. 

Rohrabacher is expected to advance to the general election, but Democrats see him as eminently beatable. 

The problem for Democrats is that California’s “jungle primary” system selects the top two candidates in a primary, regardless of party. With so many Democrats running, it’s possible that the second-highest vote-getter will be a Republican, guaranteeing that the seat remains in GOP hands.

The possibility of a shutout in a district that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAre Democrats turning Trump-like? The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE won narrowly in 2016 is an agonizing prospect for the Democratic Party, which needs to pick up 23 seats to win back the House in November. 

Seeking a standard-bearer, the Democratic side of the race has become a free-for-all in the final days.

 “We are in a dogfight for that second seat,” said Harley Rouda, a businessman who is one of the leading Democrats in the race.

“In the jungle primary, it's more three-dimensional chess than in the general. The general is simple — you know who you are going against. In this case, the alliances are literally shifting on a daily and weekly basis.”

The 48th District is a top target for Democrats because it’s one of seven House districts in California now held by a Republican that Clinton won in the 2016 election. Rohrabacher has also drawn scrutiny for his friendly stance toward Russia. 

Rohrabacher’s reelection prospects look grim enough that one of his proteges, former state Assemblyman Scott Baugh, launched a last-minute bid for the seat. 

While a handful of Democrats have dropped out of the race in hopes of avoiding a shutout, two strong contenders remain — Rouda and stem-cell researcher Hans Keirstead. 

Keirstead won the coveted California Democratic Party endorsement at the party’s February convention. Three California Democratic congressmen have also endorsed him, as did 314 Action, a group supporting scientists running for office.

Rouda’s backers include 12 Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation, as well as groups like Indivisible and the progressive National Nurses United. And last month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) added Rouda to its “Red to Blue” list of the party’s most promising candidates.

Recent polling shows both Democrats neck-and-neck with Baugh, raising the strong risk of both Republicans advancing.

That reality has prompted the DCCC to pour in about $1.6 million into the race to attack Baugh, as well as about $100,000 to boost a lesser-known Republican to try and split GOP votes.

The DCCC is also helping Rouda with a joint television ad.

The intervention by the DCCC has frustrated Keirstead, who believes that the party didn’t give him a fair shake.

Some of the party’s discomfort with his candidacy, Keirstead said, stems from an investigation into improper conduct when he worked at the University of California, Irvine. Keirstead was cleared of wrongdoing by the university. 

The allegation from an anonymous whistleblower stems from a night out Keirstead took with members of his research lab. He rented the team a limo stocked with alcohol to travel to a concert, but an altercation broke out between two of his assistants outside of a bar.

Keirstead was accused of hitting one woman in the scrap and having relationships with members of his team. He emphatically denies the allegations, saying the whistleblower was a former business partner who he said made the allegations in a push for leverage in a “malicious lawsuit” filed against Keirstead. 

The UCI investigation found the accusations “unfounded” and said the whistleblower didn’t claim to have “first-hand knowledge” of the accusations. 

The DCCC had been aware of the allegations well before they surfaced in a Mother Jones piece last month and had been discussing with the campaign about the best way to respond.

Keirstead claims the committee pressed him to have the women involved deny the allegations on camera, but a DCCC aide denied that, telling The Hill it was open to other ways for Keirstead to provide additional information to refute the accusations. 

Less than two weeks before the complaint surfaced in the Mother Jones report, the DCCC made the move to back Rouda.

“It’s disappointing to see this race get tainted by a little flavor of Trumpian-type politics where politics are coming in front of issues,” Keirstead said. 

“[The DCCC] decided to hit Baugh really hard, which is fantastic for both Harley and me. But they decided to hedge their bets with Harley.”

Keirstead said national Democrats are overlooking the potential vulnerabilities of Rouda.

The candidate and his allies have highlighted age discrimination lawsuits against Rouda’s family real estate company, including by a female cancer patient who won a $1.85 million settlement. And a January National Journal report found that Rouda sat on the board of a company connected to sweatshops.

Rouda pushed back on those charges to The Hill, calling Keirstead “unethical” for raising the accusations without explaining what he sees as the full truth. He noted he was dismissed from the age discrimination lawsuit. His campaign has said he was unaware of the second company’s connection to a sweatshop, adding that Rouda wasn’t involved in the day-to-day decisionmaking there.

Rouda argued that the UCI investigation is only part of the reason Keirstead is problematic as a candidate, pointing to a January story in Roll Call that quoted him misstating that Democratic leadership wanted to appoint him to lead the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. 

“People are seeing that he’s not a viable candidate against Rohrabacher,” Rouda said. 

“It comes down to educating the voter to who is being supported by whom, but more importantly than that, whose values better align with your values and who has a better chance of beating Rohrabacher.”

Democrats are anxiously awaiting Tuesday’s results to see whether they’ll have a candidate in the general election.

Rouda has repeatedly tweeted in the final days, “don’t split the vote,” while Keirstead has incorporated similar messaging in his closing argument. 

“Your support is critical in preventing a Democratic lockout,” Keirstead tweeted earlier this week.

“We can’t let #CA48 continue to be represented by a Putin pawn. It’s time for a change.”