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Congressman Harley Rouda. (Photo: Roudaforcongress)

2020 General Election Preview: 48th Congressional District

California Globe takes an inside look into the tight Orange County congressional district showdown

By Evan Symon, October 20, 2020 6:47 am

The 48th Congressional Districts sits along the Pacific coast in Orange County and goes from about Long Beach 50 miles down to Dana Point. The district is filled with rich, coastal suburbs like Costa Mesa, the Lagunas, Newport Beach, and Seal Beach. And we do mean rich, as the 48th has a median income at around $90,000. That makes it one of the richest districts in the state.

The district is majority white, but with large contingents of Asian-Americans and Hispanics. And despite Congressman Harley Rouda (D-CA) winning last year, the district is still majority Republican. Trump nearly won here in 2016, with Cox scoring one of his few SoCal district victories here two years ago during the Governor’s race. The GOP also holds a lot of fundraisers around here. The district may be a little less red, but it’s still red.

Like all the other OC districts that were flipped blue two years ago, the GOP is out for revenge. And the 48th gives them their best shot at taking back lost Congressional seats next month.

Former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Since its creation in 1993, the 48th District has always been in the same area, and as such, has always voted Republican. During the last redistricting in 2013, former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher won, continuing his Congressional service dating back to 1989. And he kept winning…until 2018.

Rohrabacher started openly supporting Russia, making both the Dems and the GOP cringe with his pro-Putin remarks. Not helping matters was his refusal to speak with constituents who didn’t support Trump, something that even Republican diehards like Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) didn’t do.

Rohrabacher went into the race with a large lead, and a track record of winning by nearly 60% in previous elections. His actions, plus the blue wave hitting the OC, cost the GOP one of their largest losses of the night, with Rouda trouncing Rohrabacher with nearly 54% of the vote.

Rouda, a moderate Democrat who had been considered a longshot at the beginning of the year to win and wasn’t even given Vegas odds, now had the highest office in the district.

This year the Republicans aren’t taking any chances at another Rohrabacher situation, tapping Michelle Steel, the wife of Republican National Committee Member Shawn Steel, to take back the district and make the OC red again. Democrats, still reeling over their victory, have likewise bolstered Rouda’s reelection funds in this district.

The Candidates:

Harley Rouda – Congressman Harley Rouda is in the fight for his political life in 2020. Originally a lawyer in Ohio, Rouda came out to the coast in the 90’s, got into real estate, and began helping out at charity events. In 2016 he switched from Republican to Democrat, soon after announced his candidacy for Congress. Despite being a near-center Democrat, he was way down in the Primary polls below the favored Democratic candidate Hans Keirstead. However, Keirstead’s hyper focus on healthcare, as well as a cyberattack, allowed Rouda to catch up. Rouda then shocked Democrats by actually coming in second, ahead of Keirstead, by just 100 votes.

Rouda then did the same to Rohrabacher, lucking out because of gaffes by the Rohrabacher campaign, the blue wave, Michael Bloomberg dumping $4 million into his campaigns coffers, and using his DINO politics to gather in centrist Republicans still upset with Rohrabacher. For the second time that year, he astounded political analysts.

Rouda has since established himself as a centrist Democrat in Congress, usually siding with the wishes of constituents of the district on matters such as homelessness, but also siding with the party in environmental, healthcare, and economic matters. These votes, as well as several others, have angered many locals, especially those that voted for him only two years ago, Also not helping Rouda are a growing list of financial woes, including having tax issues and not reporting stock transactions as required by law. Republicans and Steel have pounced on these indiscretions, especially by mentioning his push for higher taxes while not paying his own.

Rouda has a diverse list of organizations backing him, including the all-important labor unions, as well as a few conservative leaning groups. But with continued problems coming closer to election day, his Democratic bloc and his endorsements may not be enough.

Michelle Steel. (Photo: Michelle Steel for Congress)

Michelle Steel – Not wanting to chance Rohrabacher again, the GOP backed Michelle Steel in 2020 to take back the 48th. Steel, a South Korean immigrant and the wife of Republican National Committee Member Shawn Steel, has had a long and prominent political career. After serving on several committees formed by former President George W. Bush and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steel became a member of the California State Board of Equalization. Eight years later in 2015, she was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors where she currently serves. She was appointed by President Trump to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

She holds a degree in business from Pepperdine University and an MBA from the University of Southern California, and is fluent in Korean and Japanese. Republicans wanted an impressive candidate with a strong Republican background, and they found her.

As a Supervisor, Steel has fought traffic congestion and high taxes, two issues important to the OC that Rouda hasn’t really highlighted despite his moderate stances. In 2020 she has broadened her appeal. While she still holds a hard line when it comes to issues such as ending sanctuary cities and lowering taxes, Steel is also drawing many moderate Democrats through her environmental causes such as beach cleanups and other normally lefter-leaning stances. Recently, her COVID-19 stances, such as trying for broader re-openings in the county, have drawn the ire of Democrats, so borderline Democrats might be a little cooled off on her now over that. However, she’s also taking on Rouda directly on some of his more closer-to-home stances on issues like homelessness, so she might also be winning some back. It’s a real tug of war for centrist voters over her.

Steel has fallen behind a bit on spending, with Rouda bolstered by many wealthy Democrats. But a giant, diverse list of supporters, including everyone from former Congressman Newt Gingrich to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is giving Rouda a run for his supporters’ money in 2020. Her support from many women’s and Asian-American groups is also of concern for Rouda, as many had supported him in his victory in 2018.

What does this mean?

Polls show that Steel is only three points behind. If you factor in the greater number of Republicans in the district, her name recognition, and the fact that right-leaning voters tend to go unregistered more than Democrats in California, Steel may be closer than many people think. The growing number of indiscretions on Rouda’s part is also hurting.

However, Rouda was also pretty solid in his freshman term in Congress, and his moderate politics do manage to win many over centrist voters. His current odds of winning illustrate that.

For many voters, what the candidates have done recently on issues like COVID-19 could be the deciding factor. While many in Orange County have been upset with Steel’s stances on reopening and masks, many more approve them. And Steel’s policies on reopening may also have an unexpected quick kick of support coming in from disaffected Disney employees who live in the district. Over 10,000 were just let go in nearby Anaheim alone because of state policies, and enough may live in the district to put a dent into Rouda’s total.

More Democrats voting due to the presidential election may also give Rouda some assistance, as sort of a ‘mini-blue wave’.

The race will be a close one. Steel likely has enough support now thanks to the brewing issues over Rouda, but you cannot count him out just yet. It may all come down to how Steel chooses to capitalize on Rouda’s financial misdeeds.

Evan Symon
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