HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Twenty-three years ago, Scott Baugh was a little-known Southern California lawyer whose conservative politics and youthful brio impressed Republican U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who steered his new protege to a seat in the state Legislature.
Now, Baugh wants the congressman’s job.
What was once a political kinship forged around the values of the Reagan revolution has deteriorated into a nasty rivalry in a state where Republicans can scarcely afford it.
Democrats are pursuing a string of Republican-held House seats in California, four of them partially or entirely in Orange County. But in the 48th District, Rohrabacher also is fighting off one of his own.
In a worst-case scenario, the intraparty feud could cost the GOP a seat in a year when the balance of power in Congress might hinge on a handful of California races.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” said Republican national committeeman Shawn Steel, who’s known Rohrabacher since the 1960s and is backing his friend’s bid for a 16th trip to Capitol Hill.
The bad blood between the old allies appears to stem at least partly from Baugh’s belief that the congressman reneged on plans to retire at the end of the current term. It also reflects a new reality in the increasingly Democratic state: Republicans fighting over their shrinking turf.
Rohrabacher, 70, is a one-time Cold Warrior who became Russia’s leading defender on Capitol Hill. His name has come up in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election; he has denied any wrongdoing.
The guitar-strumming, surfing-loving congressman is a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan. He also is widely known for his longtime support for legalized marijuana.
He’s been depicting Baugh in campaign ads as an ethically challenged lobbyist who, if elected, would become a “perfect member of the swamp in Washington,” echoing President Donald Trump’s criticism of Beltway politics.
To Baugh, his ersatz mentor has become the embodiment of all that’s wrong with Washington — a perpetual incumbent with little to show for it.
The 55-year-old Baugh, who spent a decade leading the Orange County Republican Party, has been stuffing mailboxes with postcard-like ads mocking the congressman’s numerous overseas trips, including multiple visits to Russia.
“They do call me ‘Putin’s favorite congressman,'” one jeers, the flip side carrying a rendition of Moscow’s famous domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Part of the uncertainty in the race comes from a crowded field in the June 5 election combined with California’s so-called jungle primary system, in which all candidates are listed on a single ballot. The top two vote-getters advance to a November runoff, regardless of party affiliation.
Voters in the coastal district are seeing a barrage of ads backed by millions of dollars from candidates in both major parties, as well as outside groups.
The rift has divided Republicans in Orange County, once considered a GOP fortress where Democrats have been making inroads. Rohrabacher’s district, which includes wealthy seaside enclaves like Newport Beach as well as inland suburbs, is among seven in California held by Republicans but carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race, making them targets this year.
As a durable incumbent, Rohrabacher can claim an advantage — he won the district by nearly 17 points in 2016, though he hasn’t faced a tough race in recent memory.
The party establishment is behind him. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes is headlining a fundraiser for him next month. And in March, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other prominent Republicans sent Baugh a scalding letter, urging him to step away.
“Limited resources and volunteer energy must be directed toward defeating Democrats,” they wrote, calling his campaign “destructive to the Republican Party of Orange County which you helped build.”
Baugh remains undeterred.
“The longer you stay in Washington, the less likely you’ll get anything done,” he said in an interview.
Rohrabacher’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.
The congressman faced controversy last week after telling a group of real estate agents in Washington that homeowners should be able to refuse to sell their property to gays and lesbians. The Orange County Register reported that the remarks prompted the National Association of Realtors to withdraw its recommendation that members send campaign contributions to Rohrabacher, and that the congressman denied he’s trying to shore up his conservative flank to fend off Baugh.
Democrats have their own problems: too many candidates, which could water down the party’s chances.
Several Democrats are among the top spenders in the race, including businessman Harley Rouda, who’s backed by the party’s campaign arm in the House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Neuroscientist Hans Keirstead snagged the endorsement from the state Democratic Party.
Ironically, there’s also the possibility that Baugh’s candidacy turns out to be a blessing for Republicans.
With 16 names on the ballot in a district with a Republican pedigree and a double-digit registration advantage for the GOP, it’s mathematically possible that two Republicans advance to the runoff, shutting out the Democrats in November.
Congressional Democrats eager to keep Baugh out of the runoff have been running ads that recall his 1999 agreement to pay a $47,900 penalty for campaign-finance violations during his first race for the Assembly in 1995.
It’s all been wearying for Huntington Beach retiree Sharon Cress, a registered Republican, who sees a campaign focused on insults, not issues.
The ads from the two Republicans “are all mudslinging,” said Cress, who worked in real estate. “It’s just awful. I probably won’t vote for either one of them.”