The primary in California’s 48th district this month showed that the Republican party lacks brains. It may have revealed a missing soul as well.
California has a unique top-two or “jungle” primary, in which the top two candidates regardless of party make it to the general-election ballot. With the right strategy, a party can use this system to its advantage, especially when it already holds a seat: An incumbent is almost guaranteed to make the top two, so a strong showing by a primary challenger from the same party can shut the other side out of the general election entirely.
The GOP had the opportunity to do this in California’s 48th. Instead, it sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into attacking a credible Republican primary challenger, joining the Democrats’ $3 million assault to edge him out of the general election. The result is that a weak and feckless incumbent will face a multi-million-dollar onslaught from a Democrat and a potential loss in November.
That incumbent is Dana Rohrabacher, a 30-year member of Congress; the district is a wealthy and conservative one based in Orange County. With his weak legislative record and head-scratching views, Rohrabacher made this safe Republican seat vulnerable. Rohrabacher hasn’t passed a bill in 14 years, and his colleagues roll their eyes at his public statements — such as that dinosaur flatulence causes global warming and that people should be allowed to refuse to sell homes to homosexuals — not to mention his cult-like fixation on marijuana and his unwavering defense of Vladimir Putin.
Rohrabacher’s oddities don’t stop at public-policy opinions. Rohrabacher has become so addicted to his congressional travel perks (a record 172 foreign trips) that he sought to extend those perks to his family members, asking the Republican caucus to change congressional rules so his wife and kids could join him at taxpayers’ expense. Apparently, the excess of $1 million Rohrabacher has paid his wife out of his campaign in the last 15 years was insufficient to cover his family travel. To the credit of Rohrabacher’s Republican colleagues, nobody seconded his motion.
With Rohrabacher’s weak record and quirky fixations, and the fact that Hillary Clinton won the 48th in 2016, Nancy Pelosi made that district her No. 1 target for November of 2018.
A well-known former Republican assembly leader and former ten-year chairman of the Orange County Republican party, Scott Baugh, recognized the disaster looming for Republicans and filed to run in the jungle primary. Overnight, polling reflected that Baugh and Rohrabacher would take the top two spots, the optimal outcome for the Republicans. Regardless of whether you liked Baugh or Rohrabacher, the seat would remain in Republican hands.
Rather than acknowledging the shortcomings of the incumbent or the wisdom of securing an all-Republican general-election match-up, the GOP stood squarely behind Rohrabacher. They also attacked Baugh. GOP elected officials from Orange County, including U.S. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, sent a letter to Baugh chastising him; to make the point clear, the letter was distributed to all Republicans in the party’s database. This embarrassing assault on Baugh exposed the soul of the Republican establishment and showed rank political incompetence.
In the meantime, Rohrabacher calculated that he would lose to Baugh, and thus that his best chance of survival was to keep Baugh out of the general election. Rohrabacher spent $750,000 against Baugh, dishonestly calling him a pro-amnesty, Never Trump Republican and manufacturing attacks against Baugh for anything and everything that was unpopular in the district. Rohrabacher’s priority was saving his seat and not saving the seat for Republicans. And the Orange County GOP backed this display of petty corruption. They buried an unfavorable ethics complaint against Rohrabacher for his lying about Baugh’s record.
With three weeks to go before the election, Baugh and Rohrabacher remained in the top two spots heading for the general election. Regardless of whether Baugh or Rohrabacher won, the Republican party would avoid the embarrassment of losing a safe Republican seat. But that placed Baugh in the unenviable position of being a threat to Pelosi’s ambition to capture a safe Republican seat and to Rohrabacher’s 30-year career at the public trough.
With time running out, Pelosi teamed up with Rohrabacher in attacking Baugh. In the final three weeks of the campaign Rohrabacher and Pelosi spent an additional $3 million attacking Baugh via radio, network and cable TV, mail, and digital advertising.
Pelosi and the Democrats also invested in an insurance policy. They spent $150,000 in the final week of the campaign promoting an unknown Republican named John Gabbard in order to siphon anti-Rohrabacher votes away from Baugh. Gabbard, who up until then had been an asterisk in polling, eventually took 3.2 percent of the vote.
Baugh was edged out of the second-place spot by 1.5 points. The loss, however, belongs to the Republican party. The Republicans will now have to spend millions of dollars protecting Rohrabacher in the richest Republican district in the nation.
To the credit of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC strongly supportive of House speaker Paul Ryan, it did spend money promoting Baugh’s candidacy. The tragedy was that these funds were routed through an Iowa organization called the American Future Fund. Nobody in the district knew who the American Future Fund was, and it clearly lacked any local flavor. Camouflaging help by going through the back door of an unknown, out-of-state organization substantially diluted the effectiveness of the intended help — clearly a missed opportunity.
The Democrats are playing for keeps. Republican leaders would be wise to start doing the same.
In the meantime, Rohrabacher’s smear campaign against Baugh turned into a murder/suicide mission. Yes, the collective efforts of Rohrabacher and Pelosi were successful in keeping Baugh out of the general election, but Rohrabacher was badly wounded by his own negative campaigning. Rohrabacher received only 30 percent of the overall vote, a record number of Republicans voted against him, and a staggering 9,150 people who went to the polls to vote in other races refused to cast a vote in the House primary.
The short-sighted Republican leaders feared a Baugh/Rohrabacher fight in the general election would divert limited resources away from two other vulnerable seats that Republicans are trying to protect in California (the 39th and the 49th). Sadly and ironically, they will now have to divert millions of dollars to what is normally a safe seat in order to salvage Rohrabacher.
And instead of seeing Baugh as a way of guaranteeing that the seat remained in Republican hands, the GOP kakistocracy put this seat — and perhaps control of Congress — in jeopardy.
Pelosi is already in for a penny and soon will be in for an entire pound. Her assault on Baugh was merely a warm-up for her forthcoming assault on Rohrabacher. The Democrats are playing for keeps. Republican leaders would be wise to start doing the same.