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Congressman Harley Rouda. (Rouda)

2020 March Primary Preview: 48th Congressional District

California Globe takes an inside look into the 48th Congressional District primary race

By Evan Symon, February 22, 2020 9:51 am

The 48th Congressional District:

Former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. (DR)

Riding along the Orange County coast from Long Beach to about Dana Point, the 48th sits in upscale seaside suburbia. It’s one of the richest Congressional districts in the state, with a median income sitting at about $90,000. And it’s also the most vulnerable Congressional district currently in California.

The Democrats managed to win the district in 2018 thanks to the unpopularity of previous Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and $4 million in campaign funding from former New York City Mayor and current Democratic candidate for President Michael Bloomberg. But make no mistake – this is solid Republican territory. Republican-registered voters out number Democrats here, and previous Congressional elections before 2018 always had the Republican winning by a wide margin. Cox managed to edge out Newsom here in 2018, and even Trump nearly got the district in 2016. It’s conservative, but it’s California conservative here.

History of the 48th:

The 48th has always been situated along the Pacific coast between LA and San Diego since it’s creation in 1993, always having a piece of Orange County. And until 2018 it had always voted a Republican in with at least 55% of the vote. Redistricting in 2013 brought in Representative Rohrabacher, and while initially popular, his pro-Russia and pro-Putin remarks managed to displease both Republicans and Democrats. Other actions, such as his refusal to meet with constituents who were against Trump, also worked against him.

The Democrats, initially behind scientist Hans Keirstead, had to switch their support to now-Congressman Harley Rouda (D-CA). The surprise candidate surprised again by beating Rohrabacher, who had held a seat in Congress since the Reagan administration. Two years later, with the district still slightly more Republican than Democratic, Rouda is yet again the underdog despite being the incumbent.

Harley Rouda:

Congressman Harley Rouda is currently fighting to keep his seat for a sophomore year. Rouda, a longtime lawyer in Ohio, moved to California in the 90’s to join a realty firm. Before 2018 he had no political experience outside of helping work numerous charity events in Orange County, primarily for homeless issues. Before the election, his lack of political experience was brought out in the open, revealing that he had been a Republican until 1997 and had not registered as a Democrat until 2016. He had even given to Republican candidates as late as 2016.

Despite Democrats chastising him for it, it turned out to help him, as many centrist Republicans found having a possible DINO to be preferable to another two years of Rohrabacher. He was not the Democrats first choice going into the primaries in 2018, but by the end of the year he was a huge Democratic ally as he managed to defeat one of Trump’s top supporters.

Rouda has been a middle of the road Democrat in terms of voting, disappointing many centrist voters who expected someone more in the middle. Rouda also voted for impeachment, which will be hard to explain to a largely Republican voting populace. His platform issues of gun control and health care may also fall on many deaf ears in the 48th, although voters may perk up when they hear his economy, home building, and environmental stances. His long history on homelessness concerns is also very popular among voters in the district.

Rouda doesn’t have nearly as many endorsements as he did two years ago. He has firefighter unions on his side, as well as environmental groups and some usually conservative development organizations. He’s expecting to be one of the two candidates as the only Democrat on the ticket, so things may pick up later.

Right now Rouda will get through the primary. But whoever his opponent is going to be, he’s going to have a lot of explaining to do.

Michelle Park Steel:

Congressional candidate Michelle Park Steel. (Wikipedia)

Out of the handful of Republicans going against Rouda the best tracking candidate has been Michelle Park Steel. 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. 8 years later in 2015 she was elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors and later served on a committee formed by President Trump. If the Republicans wanted to find the candidate with the most big names and positions attached, they found her.

As a supervisor she had fought against high taxes and traffic congestion, and also managed to win some brownie points from Democrats due to voting with them on beach cleanup issues. Her platform for 2020 also includes gun rights, veteran care, ending sanctuary cities, and homelessness issues. On the latter issue she hopes to take some support away from Rouda, who has proven himself to be very knowledge about the issues surrounding homelessness and what to do about it in California.

Her supporters include some of the top Republican lawmakers in recent U.S. history. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich and Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are on top, but dozens of national, state, county, and local leaders fill out the long list. She pretty much has the entire California Congressional contingent supporting her. The GOP is also supporting her going in, as are many women’s groups, which may be worrisome to Rouda.

Three other Republican candidates are trying to get the spot for the general election in November, but the nearest candidate, former Huntington Beach city council candidate Brian Burley, is a distant third to Rouda and Steel right now.

What does this mean?

One of the main Republican goals in 2020 seems to be taking back Orange County. Many of the close elections are here, and a lot of money is being pumped in here by both parties. The 48th district is the GOP’s best chance at regaining ground after the losses in blue wave elections and the 2018 midterms.

Considering that the district is still a Republican majority and that a top Republican in the form of Steel is in, Rouda is going to have a hard time staying afloat. Steel comes in as an Asian-American woman with a long history of party support and winning important Republican elections, as well as being chosen for various councils by several Presidents and Governors. Along with her platform, she tends to pretty much please every voter on at least a few of positions or prior experience.

Meanwhile Rouda is going to have to explain why he voted to impeach and will still have to defend his party switching. He does have a lot of cross-over support and his first term was successful. But it’s going to get real dicey after the March primary.

Republicans will do a lot to retake the district. If anything it will be a beachhead for future elections. This will most likely be a Republican gain in November, but we still need to get past the primary and then get past 8 months of campaigning. Rouda has time to build up his defenses and get on the good side of voters while Steel and the GOP are going to try to retake the district.

It’s a likely Republican victory, but there is still a long way to go.

Evan Symon
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