Could a Democrat end Dana Rohrabacher’s 15-term congressional reign?

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Harley Rouda, who was a Republican for almost 20 years, is taking on 15-term incumbent and prominent Republican Dana Rohrabacher for California’s 48th district seat. Photo courtesy of Harley Rouda for Congress

Harley Rouda is clean-cut. He wears a casual but conservative checkered shirt and sits with his hands folded neatly. His graying, closely-cropped hair is parted and arranged just so. Though Rouda looks like any other businessman one might see in the Orange County area — he’s anything but.

Rouda is planning a political takeover from a small but tidy Newport Beach campaign office nestled in a nondescript business complex just minutes away from sprawling oceanside estates and the well-to-do Fashion Island Shopping Center.

He aims to unseat prominent incumbent Republican Dana Rohrabacher, the 15-term congressional representative for California’s 48th district who is known for his beliefs that realtors should be able to decline to sell homes to gay couples and who has earned the moniker “Putin’s favorite congressman.” Rohrabacher also called global warming a “fraud” and is the only sitting congressman whose name has appeared in indictments regarding the Russia investigation, according to the New York Times.

Rouda, a Democratic Party convert who was a Republican for nearly 20 years, called the 2016 election a “watershed event.”

“For me, it wasn’t just about Trump,” Rouda told The Panther. “It was also about the fact that to me, it felt as if both parties were guilty of putting party first, country second; an unwillingness to reach across the aisle and serve your country and your community.”

Orange County is historically a staunchly red area that turned blue for the first time since the Great Depression in 2016. In late October, Rouda and Rohrabacher were nearly tied in the polls, but as of Nov. 4, the New York Times put Rouda 3 percent ahead. So what makes Rouda confident he’ll win?

His strength, he believes, is in attracting voters from both parties. He’s had “massive” support from independents and moderate Republicans, he said, and he may be right: There are dozens of signs that read “Republicans for Harley” on some of the major thoroughfares in Newport Beach.

“It’s due to the fact that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right,” Rouda said. “When I was a Republican, you had Republicans who believed in environmental stewardship, Republicans who believed in women’s rights … Republicans who believed that moderation was how you moved the country forward. It would appear now, based on the current Republican leadership, that all of those things I just mentioned are off the table.”

There’s another quality that differentiates Rouda from his opponent. Millionaire Michael Bloomberg’s super PAC has spent more than $4.3 million to oppose Rohrabacher, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making this the most costly House election in the U.S.

While Rohrabacher hasn’t self-financed during his 2018 campaign, Rouda has spent more than $1 million of his own money, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“We did not have much advance notice at all,” Rouda said of the super PAC’s funding. “The Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC on the Republican side, has spent millions of dollars against me. Having Bloomberg come in and help offset that – we’re greatly appreciative of it.”

Trends in Florida’s early voting for the 2018 election show a surge in younger voters, according to Time, and Rouda believes that keeping young adults politically engaged is key.

“We’ve got to continue to build the desire to vote and overcome any apathy for those who don’t feel it’s important,” Rouda said. “It’s not only a constitutional right, but it’s also your civic duty.”

He laughs.

“Sorry, I was on my soapbox for a minute.”