NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—Four old friends gathered in January 2016 at an office building here in this plush Orange County suburb to discuss the future of California’s 48th District.
One was Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has represented the area for three decades. Another was Scott Baugh, a Rohrabacher protégé whom he propelled from obscurity into the state Assembly in the 1990s.
The conversation ended with what all but Rohrabacher now say was an understanding that the seat would be open in 2018, but what happened in the months to come led to the deterioration of a long-standing alliance and spawned one of this year’s most fascinating congressional battles.
Baugh is now challenging his political godfather, further complicating the race for a vulnerable seat and setting into motion a civil war that threatens to rile a close-knit county party’s staunch dogma against attacking one of its own.
“The old protocols of protecting incumbents don’t really apply when someone has been there 30 years,” Baugh said in an interview last week, conducted in the same room he’d met with Rohrabacher more than two years earlier. “I’m not deferring to Dana because Dana has already cut that relationship off.”
The stakes are high for both parties. Hillary Clinton won the district and Orange County in 2016, putting each of the area’s seats toward the top of the Democratic target list. But Democrats fear Baugh, a well-connected former county party chairman, could siphon away enough of Rohrabacher’s support to box out the half-dozen Democratic candidates splintering the June 5 jungle-primary vote.
Private polling on the race conducted in recent weeks by both Democrats and Republicans showed Rohrabacher with support in the low-to-mid 30s, an ominous percentage for an incumbent. That apparent vulnerability combined with the number of Democrats flooding the field gave Baugh a realistic path to the general election and contributed to his decision to run.
“It does change the dynamics,” said Harley Rouda, a top Democratic candidate, who didn’t rule out attacking Baugh to help his own chances of advancing. “We certainly need to be cognizant of how he can impact the race.”
According to Baugh, the 2016 meeting with Rohrabacher followed a phone call he had with the congressman the month before. Rohrabacher told him then that he would retire in 2018 and gave Baugh, a former state Assembly Republican leader, his blessing to solicit contributions for a campaign to succeed him. Baugh had begun to do so by the time they met.
In person, Baugh said he and Rohrabacher expanded on that initial conversation with two friends, and the congressman told them he might retire sooner if a Republican won the White House and offered him an appointment.
Three months later, Baugh reported raising more than $500,000, which he planned to use in the 2018 cycle. That same day, Rohrabacher released a statement declaring that he had no plans to retire, accusing Baugh of plotting against him, and urging Baugh to return donations solicited under the assurance that the seat would be open.
“I was stunned,” Baugh recalled. “It completely felt like a betrayal.”
In an interview last week outside the Pacific Club, a ritzy private venue in Newport Beach where county Republicans hob nob, Rohrabacher said he agreed to Baugh’s request to fundraise as long as Baugh promised not to challenge him, and he gave no specific timeline on his retirement.
“He’s got a self-serving memory,” Rohrabacher said. “I hope that he in some way comes to grips with this compulsion to be a congressman.”
The meeting’s other two participants, GOP consultant Jon Fleischman, who runs the California-politics website Flash Report, and Costa Mesa City Councilman Jim Righeimer, confirmed to National Journal that Rohrabacher was unequivocal about his plan to retire in 2018. They have since aligned themselves with Baugh’s campaign.
The relationship between the two men dates back to 1995, when Rohrabacher recruited Baugh for a recall election in the state Assembly. “People might say that I made Scott Baugh, politically, and I think that would be very accurate. I picked him out of nowhere,” Rohrabacher said.
He added later: “Gratitude, I think, is a very important human trait.”
The aftermath of that race left them further intertwined. Rohrabacher’s now-wife, Rhonda, was accused of recruiting a decoy candidate on the ballot to split the Democratic vote, ensuring Baugh’s victory, and pled guilty on two charges. Prosecutors also accused Baugh of campaign finance violations in that election, though those charges were ultimately dropped.
After Rohrabacher’s April 2016 statement, Baugh watched the next two years with interest. He polled to confirm that he had a path, and entered the race this year at the March 9 candidate-filing deadline.
Local and national Democrats had suspected for months that Baugh would run, but his late entrance impeded any efforts to cull the field and avoid a shutout.
“I really didn’t anticipate Scott Baugh jumping into the race the way he did on the very last day,” said Democrat Laura Oatman, who dropped out last month. She said that had she realized the threat, she would have exited the race in time to have her name removed from the ballot.
The night before he filed, the county GOP dropped on Baugh’s doorstep a letter signed by Republican elected officials urging him not to mount a campaign that would be “an unnecessary distraction” as they work to protect two competitive nearby open seats.
Baugh said half the names on that letter privately encouraged him to run, and that several members of the California delegation expressed support to him in confidence. While National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Jack Pandol said the committee supports Rohrabacher as “a dues-paying incumbent,” Baugh said he found it “instructive” that the NRCC hasn’t contacted him.
Baugh hired California GOP consultant Dave Gilliard, who has advised several of the state’s Republican members, including Reps. Jeff Denham, Mimi Walters, Ed Royce, and Darrell Issa, as well as Rohrabacher.
In interviews, some Republican officials in the county complained that Rohrabacher has proved ineffective, citing the three bills he sponsored during his congressional tenure that became law, the fact that he has never chaired a committee, and that he had lost sight of the bread-and-butter concerns of the district.
Republican state Sen. John Moorlach, who represents much of the district and backs Baugh, said the last time he spoke extensively with the congressman, Rohrabacher made a point of stressing that he was “the national point person on cannabis.”
“And I kind of thought to myself, ‘Really, that’s your priority?’” Moorlach said.
Baugh said his campaign won’t stress many ideological differences with Rohrabacher. He hopes to offer disaffected Republicans and independents a candidate with a more collaborative style and whose focus will dovetail better with the needs of the district.
“He’s spending more time on his pet projects of Russia and marijuana than focusing on the people back home,” Baugh said.
As a prolific fundraiser who has raised money in the past for dozens of national Republicans including Mitt Romney, Sen. Marco Rubio, and former Speaker John Boehner, Baugh has the resources to get his message out. He raised more than $318,000 in the less than three weeks he spent fundraising last quarter from over 100 donors —the vast majority of which hailed from Southern California.
But Rohrabacher has stepped up his efforts, raising more than $1 million by the end of 2017 and gearing up activists for “a large ground campaign that Scott can’t even touch,” the congressman said, noting he believes Baugh is unpopular with “rank-and-file Republicans.”
Rohrabacher has no disillusions about the challenge ahead, and was an omnipresent figure in the district last week, attending several local events—including ones surrounded by dozens of angry protesters fighting to protect sanctuary cities.
As he sat in a secure backroom at the Aliso Viejo City Hall and scribbled notes for a two-minute speech he would later give to the city council, he complained about liberals who hounded his family home and engaged in a scuffle at his district office that sent one staffer to the hospital.
Orange County sheriff’s deputies escorted the congressman in and out of the meeting and guarded him while he sat in the front row, unfazed by the several constituents photographing him and waving signs.
“I thought some of the people who decided not to run for reelection were cowards,” he said. “I don’t run away from a fight.”