Election 2018: ‘You are the enemy’

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During his three decades in elected office, Orange County Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher has talked to the press countless times about his views.

But last Saturday, when I dropped by Rohrabacher’s campaign headquarters, hoping to talk about his bid for re-election and what he was telling voters in the final days of the campaign, the conservative congressman let me know I wasn’t welcome.

“Public broadcasting has been so rotten, along with CNN, MSNBC,” he said. “We don’t like to deal with them anymore because it’s fake news, phony news.”

When I asked if he even liked talking to me, his answer was crisp: “No, no I don’t.”

My sort-of interview with Rohrabacher was our “Us Versus Them” times in microcosm, and to the congressman I was most certainly “them.”

Campaign staff and volunteers in Dana Rohrabacher’s Huntington Beach campaign headquarters. After 30 years in office, the Republican congressman faces his most serious threat to his incumbency. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

A former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher was first elected to Congress in 1988 to a district encompassing affluent coastal communities including Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach.

Rohrabacher’s hardline stands on national defense and immigration, mixed with a splash of libertarianism, made him popular in a district that at one time was known as “Reagan Country.” The congressman won re-election again and again.

But Rohrabacher received a sign things might be changing in his district when Hillary Clinton beat Trump there in the 2016 election. This was the first time a Democratic Party candidate had done that in decades.

Now Democratic candidate Harley Rouda and his allies are pounding Rohrabacher with negative television ads, reminding voters about some of Rohrabacher’s more controversial views, like supporting homeowners who don’t want to sell their properties to gay people and calling climate change a fraud.

Some of these ads have been financed by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who’s spending more than $4 million to defeat Rohrabacher. And that has outraged the Republican incumbent.

“What we have here is ‘Bolshevik Billionaires’ trying to buy this seat,” he told me as we stood outside his campaign office.

Rohrabacher said to fight back he has to return to campaign basics in the remaining days of the race.

“I have to make sure that all of our people are mobilized, waking precincts, letting people know that when they see this massive P.R. campaign being financed by billionaires that ‘no’ that doesn’t really reflect the truth,” he said.

Rohrabacher has closely aligned himself with Donald Trump, echoing most of his views and at one point even lobbying to be Trump’s Secretary of State.

When I asked Rohrabacher about the possible pitfalls of embracing Trump in such a close race and in district that’s moving from red to purple, he again brought it back to the media.

“No,” he said, “I think only reporters for national public broadcasting and fake news even think that that’s an issue.”

But when pressed, he said he wanted Congress to remain in Republican hands to help push Trump’s legislative agenda.

“The people don’t want Donald Trump to be disrupted,” he said. “They don’t want his presidency to be made incapable of achieving any goals because now the Democrats have control of the House.”

But Rohrabacher is making small adjustments in his messaging to win over moderate voters. In a campaign ad about health care he says he supports keeping protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But the congressman remains a staunch opponent of Obamacare.

As I floated around Rohrabacher’s campaign office trying to interview campaign staff and volunteers, the suspicion and hostility directed toward me was tangible. Even though the campaign had posted a notice on Facebook about a campaign barbecue later that day they wouldn’t tell me the location, even as they loaded the grill and cooking equipment into a volunteer’s car.

I tried to make an appeal to Rohrabacher to accompany his campaign at the barbecue, thinking the festivities would relax everyone, but the congressman wasn’t having any of it.

“No, we don’t need enemy people there, he said. “You are the enemy. The bottom line is we don’t need people who are trying to undermine us in order to support the ‘Billionaire Bolsheviks’ who are pouring money into here. We don’t need those people around to find information to hurt us.”

Congressman Rohrabacher being led away from our short interview by a campaign aide. Photo: Saul Gonzalez (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

At least at the end of our conversation, Rohrabacher and I were able to part company with a small gesture of friendliness- a handshake.

In these divided times, you take what you can get.