Democratic incumbent Rep. Harley Rouda and Republican challenger Michelle Steel are fighting to represent coastal Orange County’s 48th congressional district.
Fighting for votes and, at times, fighting each other.
In attack ads and jabs on social media, Rouda’s campaign is going after Steel for her record on the county Board of Supervisors and her opposition to policies such as gay marriage. Steel’s campaign slams Rouda for votes in congress that she believes are too liberal and has made contested allegations about his past business dealings.
In the March 3 primary, Rouda received 46.7% of the vote while Steel got 34.9%. But that ticket included three other Republicans and an American Independent candidate, and if Steel picks up most of those votes she could edge out the incumbent. Voter registration in the district still favors the GOP by more than five points.
However, Republicans tend to have a stronger showing in primaries than in general elections. Rouda also holds the advantage as an incumbent. And Republicans are expected to struggle as they share a ticket with President Donald Trump in areas where a growing majority view him unfavorably. Polling and prognosticators show Rouda remains a narrow favorite in CA-48.
The Democratic party is investing heavily in the race, hoping to hold a seat that flipped in 2018, when Rouda defeated 15-term Republican Dana Rohrabacher. But Republicans see CA-48 as the rare chance at reclaiming a congressional seat in the county only recently became majority Democrat. The district leans further right than any other House seat in Orange County.
How the election plays out Nov. 3 — or, more likely, in the days or even weeks after Election Day, as late ballots are counted — could say a lot about the future of the two parties in Orange County.
Rouda now runs with a record
Two years ago, Rouda was a disaffected former Republican, and a political newcomer, when he defeated Rohrabacher.
“Running for office is the biggest decision I’ve made with the least amount of due diligence,” Rouda, 58, acknowledges. “But I thought, I’m smart, I’m hard working, I’m a middle-of-the-road type of person, and I can serve my community and my county if I’m successful.”
Rouda grew up in Ohio, where his father built houses in the mornings and built a real estate business, HER Realtors, in the afternoons. After earning his law degree and working in several large firms, Rouda realized his dad didn’t have a succession plan for HER Realtors, which had become one of the largest independent brokerage firms in the country. Rouda ended up taking over the firm in 1996, before it went through a series of divisions and mergers and sales.
In 2007, Rouda followed his company to Orange County, settling with his wife and four children in Laguna Beach.
He’d thought about going into politics years ago. But when the Great Recession hit, he had to focus on the family business. Then came the 2016 election, which he described as “a call to all of us to get engaged in politics.”
Rouda saw Rohrabacher — once dubbed “Putin’s favorite Congress member” for his connections to Russian interference in the 2016 election — as the embodiment of an ineffective career politician. And though the district remained solidly red, Rouda beat the incumbent by nearly 7 points.
During 30 years in congress, Rohrabacher had three bills signed into law. Rouda likes to point out he got three bills passed in his first year. One was aimed at addressing the opioid crisis by making permanent a $2 million annual grant to the National Community Anti-Drug Coalition Institute. Another, which was wrapped into the National Defense Authorization Act, prevented taxpayers from subsidizing Chinese government-owned rail and bus transit companies. The third was a bill to reduce robocalls, which included a provision co-authored by Rouda.
“That can only be accomplished if you’re willing to reach across the aisle,” he said, noting his opioid bill was cosponsored by Mark Meadows, now chief of staff to Trump.
While some legislators carve out a narrow niche, Rouda has championed wide-ranging legislation, from grants for teachers to requiring a report on China’s activities in relation to Hong Kong. He said that comes from a combination of concerns he hears from constituents in CA-48 and his subcommittee work that focuses on national security, transit and the environment.
“I think climate change is the great issue facing human kind,” he said.
Rouda supports universal healthcare, but not the version of Medicare for all that, say, Sen. Bernie Sanders embraces.
“I support what I call ‘open Medicare for all,’” Rouda said. It would allow individuals and small businesses to buy into Medicare if they choose. “I do not support any option of eliminating private insurance.”
Rouda’s knowledge of healthcare issues first drew physician Hans Laursen of Seal Beach to support his candidacy. Laursen and his husband also appreciate Rouda’s support for LGBT rights and the environment.
Laursen said that Rouda has lived up to his promises to be bipartisan, and was happy to see that Rouda become a rare Democrat endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. That came, in part, from Rouda’s vote to repeal the Trump administration’s cap on State and Local Tax or SALT deductions.
Steel carves conservative path
Lyle Carlson of Huntington Beach came to support Michelle Steel after looking for help navigating the coronavirus pandemic as a single dad caring for his adult special needs daughter.
Carlson, 71, is registered as an independent. He’s voted for Democrats in recent elections and previously has never been involved in politics. But when he called Steel’s office to ask for help getting masks and other protective gear, Carlson said Steel’s staff was so impressive he asked about volunteering for her campaign. He’s particularly come to appreciate her support for police and her work ethic.
“I tell people, ‘This is a hard-working person,” said Carlson, who’s been making calls for Steel’s campaign.
Steel, 65, was born in South Korea. Her father was a diplomat and his job took her family to Japan, where Steel grew up and become fluent in Japanese.
Steel came to the United States at 19 to attend Pepperdine University. When her dad passed away, Steel’s mother moved her two younger sisters to the United States. Her mom opened a clothing store in downtown Los Angeles, where Steel worked during the day while taking business administration classes at night.
Steel’s mom arranged dates for her with single Korean men from their church, but Steel said no one stood out. Then, while she was at a tennis lesson, she met Shawn Steel, a political activist and lawyer.
Shawn Steel would go on to become chair of the California Republican Party and a member of the Republican National Committee. But first he became Michelle Steel’s husband and father to their grown daughters.
Steel said she originally didn’t think she’d join her husband in politics. But when she saw Korean business owners struggle during and after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, she began doing TV interviews and working as a radio commentator. “I thought, I understand both languages. I can be a bridge.”
Soon after, her husband’s associates asked Steel if she’d represent Korean Americans on several city of LA commissions. Then, in 2006, after watching her mom struggle to fight a tax bill, Steel ran for and won a seat on the California State Board of Equalization. That made her the country’s highest-ranking Korean American officeholder at the time.
While on the BOE, Steel learned the agency was delaying the return of security deposits owed to California businesses. She worked to get more than $400 million distributed to businesses, which she considers her proudest moment in office.
As she termed out of her BOE role, Steel moved to Seal Beach and, in 2014, won a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. She easily won reelection in 2018 and is now serving as chair of the board, where she’s most proud of her work to house the homeless and guide OC through the coronavirus pandemic.
Steel’s views on major issues fall mostly along conservative party lines. She opposes abortion rights, expanding background checks for firearms, and gay marriage, for example.
She’s campaigning on pledges to reduce taxes, oppose government-run health care, pursue tougher policies on illegal immigration and protect beaches, with support for some additional regulations to combat climate change.
Campaigns quickly go negative
The campaign between Rouda and Steel has been contentious from the start, with Rouda criticizing Steel out of the gate for announcing her candidacy in Los Angeles rather than Orange County.
Many of Rouda’s attacks have focused on Steel’s record during the pandemic. She’s been criticized for echoing Trump by downplaying the virus, saying early on that it would go away when temperatures heated up, and refusing to back a countywide mask mandate.
“We tried to make the best decisions at that time with what we knew,” Steel said, pointing out that the board declared a state of emergency one week before the state did.
As for the mask mandate, Steel insists she’s always encouraged people to wear them but noted that elected Sheriff Don Barnes said he wouldn’t enforce such a rule.
“If there is no enforcement, it cannot be mandatory,” she said.
Steel’s camp, meanwhile, regularly attacks Rouda’s past business dealings. They’ve shared an article, for example, that quotes an anonymous source who said Rouda’s firm cut health insurance for employees while keeping it for himself. And they say businesses tied to Rouda have at various points had unpaid tax bills.
Rouda’s campaign denies the allegations, saying he wasn’t part of a management group’s vote to eliminate insurance at his firm and note that he also lost coverage in the change. And his CPA noted Rouda has never had any individual tax liens, having paid $6.8 million in individual taxes over the past decade.
In terms of fundraising, Rouda has an edge over Steel. He’d raised $3.9 million as of the last reporting period, June 30, while Steel raised $3.4 million. And Steel’s total includes $1.2 million from her own pocket.
The divide gets wider once independent expenditures are factored in. Democratic groups have spent nearly $3 million on ads and mailers opposing Steel’s campaign. Federal filing doesn’t show any independent expenditures supporting Steel.
Rouda, on the other hand, has received $746,539 in independent support largely from the National Association of Realtors and just $38,877 in opposition from Republican groups.
That’s still a fraction of what was spent on the CA-48 race in 2018. But some of the biggest money that year — including a $4.3 million donation from billionaire Mike Bloomberg to Rouda — came in the final two weeks. So the price tag for this competitive seat is expected to keep going up through Election Day.
Source: Orange County Register