Meet The Calif. Republican Embracing Russia In His Re-Election Campaign For Congress

Mar 5, 2018
Originally published on March 6, 2018 7:09 am

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is facing numerous challengers from the right and the left over his warm embrace of all things Russia. NPR went to Rohrabacher's district to explore the political campaign in America where Russia looms largest.

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Many of this year's election battles will be fought over bread-and-butter economic matters. But in one Southern California congressional district, the fight is over foreign policy - specifically Russia. The Republican incumbent has long called for closer ties to Moscow and President Vladimir Putin, and in 2018 that's an issue. NPR political reporter Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: In a testy interview with Yahoo News last year, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher dismissed the Russian interference in the 2016 campaign as something that all countries do.

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DANA ROHRABACHER: When Russia does exactly what's going on in other countries, people like yourself are villainizing (ph), saying how horrible it is, but it basically...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm talking about that.

ROHRABACHER: ...Is what's happening all over the world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know Vladimir Putin.

ROHRABACHER: It basically happens in various countries.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You know Vladimir Putin personally. I don't.

MAK: Rohrabacher easily stands out as one of the most pro-Russia voices in the Republican Party. During the 2016 campaign, Politico called him Putin's favorite congressman. He even once told a story about how he arm-wrestled Vladimir Putin in the 1990s after a few rounds of drinks to decide who had really won the Cold War.

STELIAN ONUFREI: He's advocating a relationship with Russia that I think is dangerous for United States.

MAK: Stelian Onufrei is a pro-Trump Republican and local businessman running to defeat Rohrabacher on an anti-Russia platform.

ONUFREI: I don't believe necessarily that Russia is our friend. And I don't think that Russia will ever have anything that benefits United States.

MAK: Paul Martin, a Republican running both as an anti-Trump and anti-Putin candidate, goes even further.

PAUL MARTIN: He's embroiled in Russia. His loyalties are to protect Vladimir Putin from having sanctions imposed on him from our Congress.

MAK: Rohrabacher dismisses this. I reached him by phone while he was on a trip to Paris. He said his contacts with Russians are perfectly aboveboard and defended his interest in Russia because he's chairman of a House subcommittee focused on Russia and Europe. But Rohrabacher sees why it's a problem in his campaign. He said, quote, "it's legitimate to think I'm vulnerable on that because they're wrong, because they're listening to the fake news as well. My opponents are taking advantage of that."

HARLEY ROUDA: So at best, it's stupidity because it's not doing anything to drive a greater, stronger economy in the 48th District.

MAK: Harley Rouda, a Democrat running to replace Rohrabacher, is having his campaign distribute a sticker that reads, piss off Putin; vote Harley Rouda.

ROUDA: And from a nefarious standpoint the question is, why are you spending so much time on Russia when there's so many more important things you should be working on?

MAK: Orange County, Calif., is not the place in America where you'd expect to find a congressman so focused on Russia. In fact, the district has a very small number of voters with Russian ancestry. But it is a place which is diversifying in other ways that are changing the politics of this traditionally Republican area. Here's the chairman of the California Republican Party, Jim Brulte.

JIM BRULTE: While California has changed, Republican registration over the last two decades has dropped to about 12 points. And the drop tends to parallel the decline in the white population in California. Orange County is not immune from those demographic changes, but they're one of the last counties to feel the full effects of the demographic changes.

MAK: In 2016, although Rohrabacher won re-election, Hillary Clinton bested President Trump by nearly 2 percentage points in a district where Mitt Romney had beaten President Obama by 11 percentage points in 2012. Recent polling bears out Rohrabacher's vulnerability. A poll taken last month by the University of California, Berkeley, showed 51 percent of voters in his district were not inclined to re-elect him. Tim Mack, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.