In This Congressional Race, A Surfing Climate Change Skeptic Faces An Ex-Republican Turned Liberal

Republican Dana Rohrabacher, left, represents the 48th Congressional District, in Orange County. Democrat Harley Rouda, right, is challenging him in a tight race. (Photo of Rohrabacher by Annie Lesser for KPCC; Photo of Rouda courtesy of Harley Rouda for Congress; Compilation by Signe Larson/LAist)

The main office of Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher overlooks the waves rolling in alongside the Huntington Beach pier. It's perfect for keeping tabs on the surf.

"I'm not the best surfer in the world, but I am the best surfer in Congress," a younger Rohrabacher says in a video he recently posted on Twitter for California Surfing Day. He holds a longboard with an American flag painted on it above the phrase "Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Surf."

The next shot shows him paddling on a wave and then slowly popping up.

Rohrabacher represents 48th Congressional District, which stretches from Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel. He's been in Congress for nearly 30 years.

The 71-year-old tries to hang on to the SoCal beach lifestyle even while spending much of his time in D.C. His puka shell necklace peeks out from under his dress shirts when he does TV interviews.

Rohrabacher is pro-cannabis. And he's supporting a pilot project off Newport Beach designed to detect sharks near shore and keep surfers and swimmers safe.

He sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, where he advocates for a safer, next generation of nuclear power and investments in renewable energy.

On climate change, though, Rohrabacher is a perennial skeptic.

He supported Donald Trump's decision last year to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement. At the time, he told KPCC: "I disagree with the theory that CO2, caused, done by mankind, is a major cause for climate change."

In an emailed response to questions for this story, Rohrabacher said he opposed "the use of the 'climate change' theory as justification for our government or international bodies to control how Americans live."

Rohrabacher said he would rather see federal support for innovation and technology aimed at environmental quality than "punitive regulatory and tax policies."

Congressman Rohrabacher's voting record on environmental issues has earned him a lifetime score of 10 percent out of 100 from the League of Conservation Voters.

The congressman has backed President Trump's efforts to expand drilling for oil off California's coast. He said in an email that domestic oil production is safer than importing oil on tankers. Tanker accidents have, in fact, accounted for most of the world's largest oil spills.

"These mega-ships are far more likely to experience a spill into our oceans than offshore rigs," he wrote.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) after a surf session with his family. (Courtesy of the Rohrabacher re-election campaign)

When voters in the 48th District cast their ballots this fall, they'll be choosing between Rohrabacher and Democratic newcomer Harley Rouda.

The race is tight: A recent New York Times poll found the two candidates tied for support among likely voters. Democrats are pouring money into this and other SoCal congressional races in hopes of winning enough seats to take control of the House of Representatives.

BEYOND RUSSIA

Much of the focus of recent, pro-Rouda campaign ads and mailers target Rohrabacher's reported coziness with Russia. But pollsters and many voters in this coastal district say they're more concerned about local issues like the environment.

A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California found that 74 percent of likely voters in Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about the effects of sea level rise on coastal flooding and beach erosion.

Statewide, the poll found that 76 percent of likely voters disapprove of how Congress is handling environmental issues, including 82 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of independent or "No Party Preference" voters.

Mark Baldassare, who heads the PPIC, said he's seen a big increase from previous years in the number of Californians who say they'll take environmental issues into account when voting.

The environment "is a topic that has become front and center this year, partly because of what's going on vis-a-vis Washington, but also what's going on in our state around having more fires and having recent drought and people worried about how the environment might be changing," he said.

Baldassare added that independent voters in California "have distinguished themselves over time as being pro-environment."

In the 48th District, Democrats and independents have been gaining on Republicans' majority voter base. At the same time, the ranks of voters who decline to register with a party are growing.

Couple that with the district's choice of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, and it's clear why the Cook Report, an election ranking site, labels the 48th as a toss-up even while the district voters' party preferences favor Republicans.

INDEPENDENTS COULD PROVE DECISIVE

Victory for Rouda or Rohrabacher could come down to undecided voters like Mark Pickard.

Pickard showed up on his mountain bike for a recent interview near his home in hilly Laguna Niguel.

"I figured we were going to be talking about energy, so I had to be green," he explained.

Pickard is a lifelong Republican and an environmentalist. He's not a fan of President Trump.

He has recently soured on Rohrabacher, too, because of the congressman's frequent backing of the president and because of his views on climate change.

"I think another one of my core principles is science," Pickard said. "So to hear primarily Republican politicians denying the existence of climate change is insane."

Democratic candidate Harley Rouda poses with supporters at a canvassing event in Garden Grove on Sept. 23, 2018. (Photo by Jill Replogle)

ROUDA ON THE ENVIRONMENT

Flanked by his wife and L.A.-area Congresswoman Judy Chu, Democratic candidate Harley Rouda recently rallied supporters at a park in Garden Grove before a day of door-knocking.

"Together we're going to win. We are going to do this," Rouda said. "The volunteers we've had, represented by you here, are the difference between us winning and not."

Rouda has never held public office. He's a wealthy businessman with investments in real estate and a variety of startup companies, including several with a sustainability bent.

He caught some flak during the primary for previous investments in oil. But he told the progressive website ThinkProgress that he had divested from the fund in 2017.

Rouda only recently switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. But he's running on a solidly Democratic platform, endorsing universal health care, universal preschool and gun reform.

He said in an interview that he opposes drilling off the California coast and called climate change "the number one issue facing humankind long term." He also called it an "opportunity."

"I truly believe Southern California has the ability to be a leader in creating the new clean tech, clean energy industries of tomorrow that can address global climate change," Rouda said. If elected, he said he would work to bring federal tax dollars to his district to support those industries.

Rouda has been endorsed by the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.

WHO WILL GET MARK'S VOTE?

Voting is usually easy for Mark Pickard: he just looks for the "R" next to the candidate's name.

"Historically, it hasn't been a difficult choice," Pickard said. "I generally support Republicans, but it's mostly been on fiscal policy."

This year, he said, is different. He's still building his pro-con list on the candidates.

On Pickard's pro list for Rohrabacher is the congressman's vote against the tax overhaul bill last year. The limits on deductions for mortgages and state and local taxes included in the bill hit Pickard and many other Californians squarely in the pocketbook.

On the con list is Rohrabacher's recent suggestion that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should quit. Pickard saw it as an effort to undermine the Russia investigation, which he supports.

On the pro list for Rouda is his pledge to address climate change. On the con list is his endorsement of Medicare for All, which Pickard thinks is fiscally irresponsible.

Sitting in the grass on a recent morning, Pickard said he's leaning toward voting for Rohrabacher. But he's still evaluating the candidates.

"This one's going to be tough."


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