Off the record, Congressional Republicans have all kinds of opinions about the Trump-Russia connection, from “this is bullshit, this is just an effort to undermine Trump” to “Trump needs to be removed from office.” Publicly, though, most have charted a wide berth around the entire saga.
But one California congressman is tightly tethered to the issue: California’s veteran conservative Dana Rohrabacher, whom Politico once called “Putin’s favorite congressman,” and who seems to have spent time around some of the same shadowy Russian figures who talked Donald Trump Jr. into meeting with them last year.
To be more specific, Rohrabacher and his staff have long been hospitable to Russians agitating to revoke or modify the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 statute imposing sanctions against Russia as punishment for the murder of a corruption whistleblower of that name. And accounts of Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia activities are dotted with references to the former Russian military counterintelligence agent (and now naturalized U.S. citizen) Rinat Akhmetshin, one of the key figures who attended the famous meeting with Junior, and a global opposition research specialist with a taste for information obtained by hacking.
Rohrabacher visited Russia last year and met with close Putin associates, some of whom were very focused (as is Putin) on overturning sanctions the Magnistky Act created. When he returned home, Rohrabacher helped anti-Magnitsky lobbyists — including Akhmetshin — make contacts. The Orange County Republican wanted to make another trip to Russia this year in his capacity as chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, but full House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce put the kibosh on that. Rohrabacher’s reputation wasn’t helped when the Washington Post earlier this year published 2016 comments from his California colleague and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy suggesting that both Trump and Rohrabacher were on Putin’s payroll (McCarthy subsequently said he was joking).
Even if Rohrabacher has done nothing illegal or even inappropriate, his Russophilia generally and his Russian contacts specifically could make trouble for him. If Donald Trump Jr. gets political pneumonia from his meetings with Russians, Dana Rohrabacher will at least get a bad cold.
And that’s not so good for the congressman, who will be marking 30 years in the House at the end of 2018.
Rohrabacher was already vulnerable. Hillary Clinton won his CA-48 district by just under 2 points last year, one of the 23 represented by GOP members in which she prevailed. It’s a district that has been growing more diverse, too: It’s now 20 percent Latino and 18 percent Asian-American. In addition to his close association with Trump (he was reportedly on the new president’s short list for secretary of State) and his frequent praise for Trump as president, his Russian connection could tip this race into the highly competitive category if he draws a strong opponent, as McClatchy reports:
“Dana Rohrabacher, his record, his deep connections to Russia, have never been put under a microscope,” said one national Democrat familiar with the race. “They will this cycle. That is a huge difference. He sits in a district Hillary Clinton won. He’s never had his record examined closely. That’s going to happen this cycle. I think people are going to be pretty shocked about what they find.”
To prosecute that case, national Democrats are enthusiastic about Hans Keirstead, a stem cell researcher and businessman who is one of several candidates challenging Rohrabacher. And some Republicans privately concede that Keirstead is a strong candidate.
Still, Rohrabacher himself won by a 58–41 margin in 2016, and while the district is arguably anti-Trump, it’s not necessarily pro-Democratic: Mitt Romney won CA-48 by 55–43 in 2012. And the incumbent can also make the rare claim that he actually fired weapons at Russians during a visit to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet resistance back in 1988. In a slightly more dubious boast, he has also reported that he arm-wrestled (unsuccessfully) Vladimir Putin after an evening of drinking, at Capitol Hill’s Irish Times pub, in the early 1990s.
Put CA-48 on your list of races to watch next year. It should be entertaining.