Southern California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who tells a story of losing a drunken arm-wrestling match with Vladimir Putin in the 1990s to settle who won the Cold War, has long advocated friendly ties with Russia.
But what in the past has been seen as part of the pot-friendly Republican's maverick streak now runs the risk of a more sinister interpretation. He met with a Russian woman later charged with being an agent of the Kremlin trying to infiltrate the National Rifle Association, and dined with her alleged boss. FBI agents even warned him that Russian spies were trying to recruit him.
In this new political universe, with Russian intelligence officials charged with meddling in the U.S. presidential race in 2016 to help get Donald Trump elected, and special counsel Robert Mueller investigating whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to win the election, Rohrabacher's affinity for the Russian president is one more weapon for the Democrat trying to unseat him in November's midterm election.
"He's always been a kind of flake," said Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. "He's been an unusual person and one of his characteristics is his favorable view of Russia. But after Trump and after the 2016 election it's probably more of a problem for him to be identified as a Russophile than it would have been earlier."
This year, the 15-term congressman for California's 48th Congressional District is facing one of his strongest challenges ever, from Harley Rouda, a lawyer, real-estate developer and Republican-turned-Democrat who moved to California from Ohio about a decade ago.
After squeaking by in the primary by just 125 votes, Rouda hopes to appeal to a district that is increasingly less conservative and whose changing demographics now include more Hispanic and Asian voters.
This article, part 2 in a series, examines one of the key battleground races for control of the House of Representatives in the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Carried by grassroots momentum, Democrats must take 23 seats from Republicans to win the balance of power. They are contending with Republicans' experience, organization and an outspoken but polarizing president.
The race is close — far closer than it was in 2016, when Rohrabacher won the historically Republican district in Orange County by more than 16 percentage points, even while Democrat Hillary Clinton won it by 2 points. Now, the Cook Political Report rates the district a toss-up.
A July poll from the Monmouth University Polling Institute gave Rouda 46 percent of the vote to 43 percent for Rohrabacher; the UC Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies found after a September survey that the race was a dead heat.
"What's important about this particular race, of course, is Rohrabacher's profile, particularly in his defense of Russia," said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth poll. "I think if Rouda can win this, it will be seen as a repudiation of the softer stance that the president has taken on Russia."
Like Rohrabacher, Trump has sought closer ties with Russia. Trump held a controversial summit with Putin and often refuses to place the blame for 2016 election meddling squarely on Russia, despite the U.S. intelligence community's conclusion.
Rohrabacher is known for his laid-back surfer style and libertarian leanings — he pushes for states to have autonomy on marijuana policy and once joked that, as a young man, he "did everything but drink the bong water." He reportedly questioned whether Robert F. Kennedy's assassin acted alone and whether there was a foreign connection to the Oklahoma City bombing carried out by Americans.
In the late 1980s, he took off for Afghanistan briefly to visit Afghan rebels fighting the Soviet invasion; he later told The Los Angeles Times that's when he realized that he was fighting communism, not Russians.
Rohrabacher's more recent pro-Russia activities may have caught the eye of Mueller's investigators, but if the 48th District does flip from red to blue, Murray believes that voters will be driven less by Russia than their feeling of insecurity over health care costs and the state of the economy, "concerns about having the rug being pulled out from under you, that you're only one crisis away from a bankruptcy," he said.
"These are the kinds of voters who are toying with voting Democrat even though they normally vote Republican," he said.
'Extremist Views,' 'Completely Disconnected'
The 48th District follows California's coast from Seal Beach south to Laguna Niguel. It has a median household income of nearly $89,000, an average jobless rate in 2016 of 4.4 percent and nearly three-quarters of its residents have some college or higher educational levels, according to the Census.
Rouda, 56, told NBC he thought Rohrabacher was vulnerable "because of his outlandish, extremist views and his unbridled support for Russia while failing to meet his obligations as a representative of the district."
Among the views Rouda cited: that homeowners should not have to sell their homes to gays and lesbians (a practice banned by California but not nationally); that undocumented immigrants in the United States, including "Dreamers," should be deported, and that high school students could be trained to use guns stored on school premises in the event of a mass shooting (the result of a prank pulled on Rohrabacher for a TV show that the congressman later called "a sick fraud").
"It's clear that he has lost touch with the vast majority of voters and their values here in the district," Rouda said.
Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, did not agree to a request for an interview, but his spokesman, Dale Neugebauer, provided a statement. It called Rouda too liberal for the district, noting that he had been endorsed by the Progressive Democrats of America, had pledged to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus and had endorsed "Medicare for All."
"In fact, it is Mr. Rouda whose views are far outside the normal bounds of political discourse and completely disconnected from those of voters in the 48th District," Neugebauer said.
A District in Flux
Rohrbacher, 71 has held on to his seat for so long because Republicans have dominated in the district, said Jacobson, the UC San Diego professor emeritus. But this year Trump might make the difference, he said.
"In a normal year, he probably wouldn't be particularly vulnerable," Jacobson said. "Trump, as unpopular as he is, especially in California, that gives an opportunity for a challenger that might not otherwise be there."
Rohrabacher still has strong support in the Republican bastion around wealthy Newport Beach, and Republicans have a nearly 10 percentage point advantage in voter registration, but constituents elsewhere in the district are open to someone new, said Murray, the Monmouth pollster.
"They are not your older Orange County families who are used to voting Republican," he said. "They are willing to take a look at the Democrats, particularly in this race."
The share of the county's population that identifies solely as white has dropped by 5 percent since 2006 to about 60 percent, according to Census data, made up by a corresponding rise in populations that identify as Asian or Hispanic/Latino. Countywide, Republicans' advantage over Democrats in voter registration has dropped from a high of 22 percentage points in 1990 down to 2.8 this March, according to the Orange County Register.
In the July poll, Rohrabacher was favored by white voters who did not have a college degree. Those with a college degree were split between him and Rouda, while Rouda led among women, those under 50 and black, Latino and Asian-American voters.
In last month's Berkeley poll, which put the candidates in a dead heat, more than 60 percent of the respondents rated the candidates' views on the economy, health care, gun laws, immigration and taxes as among the most important.
Russia was divisive: Forty-four percent of respondents said Rohrabacher's connections to Russia made them less likely to vote for him, but half said the connections had no effect on their vote.
Rohrabacher's Russia Connections
Rohrabacher has scoffed at the idea that his Russia ties are problematic and called the federal indictment of Maria Butina, accused of trying to infiltrate the NRA, ridiculous and part of a "deep state" plot to undermine Trump.
"It's stupid," he told Politico in July. "She's the assistant of some guy who is the head of the bank and is a member of their Parliament. That's what we call a spy? That shows you how bogus this whole thing is."
Butina, a 29-year-old gun rights activist, is charged with conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent on behalf of the Russian government. Rohrabacher met her in Russia in 2015 but a spokesman told The Mercury News in July that he did not remember the encounter and recalled Butina only as an aide to the deputy governor of the Russian central bank who is reported to have tried to broker a meeting between Trump and Putin.
Rohrabacher's spokesman told NBC that the congressman's position on the House Foreign Affairs Committee required him to pay attention to the U.S. relationship with Russia.
"With respect to our relations with Russia, he believes we should cooperate with them only on those areas where we have a mutual interest and that open hostility towards them is not in the interest of the United States," Neugebauer said.
Some of Rohrabacher's supporters are untroubled by his ties to Russia.
And Rohrabacher's advocacy for Russia is not at the top of Rouda supporter James Percival's concerns, either.
"To me there are so many other bad things about him that that's just one other blemish," said the 62-year-old Newport Beach lawyer.
Percival criticized Rohrabacher for accomplishing little in his 30 years in office and his refusal to say anything negative about Trump. He opposes Rohrabacher's positions on immigration, gun rights, climate change, health care, immigration and gay rights and said Rouda had a better heart.
Rouda "believes government can be a force for good not only on behalf of the wealthiest who seem to control the levers of power but also on behalf of the powerless and the downtrodden and the economically deprived," Percival said.
The Other Issues
Some of the positions Rohrabacher's spokesman emphasized to NBC, along with the congressman's longtime connections to the district — he surfs, and the district is home to the U.S. Open of surfing — are bipartisan. Rohrabacher was one of the few Republicans to vote against the president's tax cuts last year, for example.
Last week, he released a new ad in which he portrayed himself as a health care advocate who would protect those with pre-existing conditions medical conditions from losing coverage.
The ad was personal: It features his daughter Annika who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was younger. But critics noted that Rohrabacher voted for the American Health Care Act of 2017, which would have repealed the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." According to a Congressional Budget Office report, the American Health Care Act would have undermined protections for pre-existing conditions and would have resulted in 23 million Americans losing health-care coverage.
In a video on his campaign website, Rohrabacher warns that California's quality of life is changing because of "a massive flow of illegal immigrants" over the last decades. He says he stands by Trump's efforts to control the country's borders, even if it means building a wall.
Orange County has shown some support for strict immigration enforcement as well — its board of supervisors and some cities joined a March lawsuit brought by the Trump Justice Department against California's sanctuary laws, which restrict how local law enforcement can cooperate with federal immigration enforcement officers.
Rohrabacher has an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund, supports offshore drilling for oil and supported Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He told KPCC, Southern California's public radio: "I disagree with the theory that CO2, caused, done by mankind, is a major cause for climate change."
Rouda, 56, said he would work in Congress toward reforming immigration laws, creating middle-class jobs and addressing gun violence, climate change, health care and women's rights, all important issues, he said.
But, he said, "The one that has really come to the top in the last 60 days in the sense that our democracy is under attack."
He accused Republicans of failing to stand up to foreign adversaries trying to influence the U.S. presidential election.
He describes himself as a centrist, having left the Republican party in 1997 and staying independent for two decades until registering as a Democrat. The GOP is no longer the party of Reagan, Rouda said, and it was Trump's election as president that spurred him to run for office himself, though he said he was not running against Trump but Rohrabacher.
He was particularly critical of Rohrabacher's failure to get laws passed during his time in office. Govtrack.us, a website that tracks congressional legislation, credits Rohrabacher with being the primary sponsor of three bills that have been enacted as law over his 30 years in Congress.
"He's shown how ineffective he is," Rouda told NBC.
Rohrabacher's campaign responded that the congressman had been effective however many bills his name was on, giving as an example his work helping to get federal funding for flood mitigation along the Santa Ana River.
As far Rohrabacher's opponent, Neugebauer asked: "Which Harley Rouda should voters believe? The far left liberal extremist who won the Democrat primary? Or the slick politician spending millions of dollars to remake himself now?"