Outsiders Step Up Local Political Messaging

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By Andrea Adelson | LB Indy

Political campaign advertising in the run-up to California’s June 5 primary is surfacing on lawns, on cable television, in mailboxes and online, but some of the sloganeering is being underwritten by interests other than the candidates themselves.

At least three liberal political action committees are zeroing in on congressional District 48, the southern coastal Orange County region that includes Newport Beach and is represented by Republican Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa. 

48th Congressional District Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher
— Photo courtesy office of Dana Rohrabacher

Fifteen candidates vie to unseat Rohrabacher in the June 5 primary; the top two vote-getters advance to the general election in November.

The influx of outside resources in Orange County races is a measure of the perceived vulnerability of incumbents in four once reliably Republican districts, two of which are now open seats, one that is considered a toss-up and one that still leans towards the GOP, according to the Cook Political Report.

“No other county in the country has that large an impact on control of Congress,” said Will Simons in San Francisco, a spokesman for NextGen America PAC, which is focusing half its California resources on registering voters under 30 in Orange County’s four congressional districts.

So far, NextGen America has registered 3,400 voters in California and funded two anti-incumbent digital billboards on the Garden Grove Freeway at Harbor Boulevard. The ads targeted Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters, a Republican from Laguna Beach representing a neighboring district, for supporting a proposal for more oil drilling along California’s coast.

Federal disclosure reports show NextGen Climate PAC, established in 2013 and based in Washington, D.C., spent $16 million in the first quarter.

NextGen hopes to replicate its results in Virginia where 20,000 new voters were registered and the electorate turned out a Republican governor in 2017.

Their efforts so far have yielded a 0.4 percent uptick in voters registered as Democrats in District 48, based on a comparison of statistics compiled by the Secretary of State on Jan. 2 to the April 6 update by the county registrar. Current voter registration in the district stands at 40.7 percent GOP, 30.1 percent Democrat and 24.6 no party preference.

California entrepreneur Thomas Steyer, whose advocacy now extends beyond climate change, funds the NextGen America PAC.

Two other recently established PACs lack a deep-pocketed backer and instead count on social media crowd-funding to fuel their campaigns.

Mad Dog PAC sets its sights on erecting dozens of billboards across the country with political messaging, mostly aimed at flipping congressional districts but also taking aim at the National Rifle Association. Each billboard requires separate funding; so far 39 have lured enough contributions to go up.

Claude Taylor, a former Clinton administration aide, founded the Annapolis-based Mad Dog PAC based last December. 

Rohrabacher and Walters are also targets of Mad Dog PAC, but so far their efforts to lure contributors to fund anti-incumbent billboards have proved unsuccessful, the Mad Dog website shows. 

Russia proves to be a popular theme for anti-incumbent attacks by progressive groups as well as Republicans. 

A mock-up of Mad Dog PAC’s billboard opposing
48th Congressional District Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher and tying him to President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Mad Dog’s unfunded Rohrabacher billboard links him and President Trump to Russia’s leader.

“Two people I think Putin pays,” reads the copy.

It has attracted only $1,500 towards $6,500 needed, according to the website.

A third outside PAC, ocean-focused Blue Uprising, also aims to use Russia to sow distrust among GOP loyalists, but is still panhandling online for contributions to reach its $6,000 goal.

Its planned billboard copy reads “From Russia With Love” and features illustrated Russian nesting dolls with the likenesses of Putin, Trump, Rohrabacher and Baugh, as well as a mini-me Putin for good measure.

In keeping with its ocean protection focus, Blue Uprising plans billboards in three other coastal races where a Republican won by a small margin in 2016.

Blue Uprising is the newly established PAC of Rob Caughlan, a longtime political activist who worked as a special assistant to former President Jimmy Carter.

He’s teamed up with William Rinehart, a political novice who counts on social media viewers to underwrite a political offensive in old-school media.

Caughlan, a surfer who goes by the name “Birdlegs” and former president of the Surfrider Foundation, he is incensed that Rohrabacher, who also surfs, disavows climate change and environmental protections embraced by most watermen. Of 35 votes on environmental issues in 2017, Rohrabacher supported only three, earning a 9 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters.

“How can you be a surfer and have that attitude,” Caughlan asked. “How can you vote against it all the time?”

For Blue Uprising, this week is “decision time,” said outdoor media ad broker Cory Bray. Through his Billboards in OC, based in Orange, he’s helped other ad buyers with controversial messages, such as one from a bereaved father whose daughter was killed by a texting driver and another to save a library.

He’s betting Rinehart will go forward and expects the nesting dolls will loom 14 by 48 feet overhead somewhere along Harbor Boulevard between Warner and Edinger avenues before May 11.

Locally, GOP challenger Scott Baugh’s cable television ads and mailers also poke jabs at Rohrabacher for taking political junkets and ties to Russian lobbyists. Rohrabacher mailers hit back with accusations that Baugh is a pawn for special interests.

It’s unclear yet if outside PACs supporting conservative causes will pile on in the district, too. A query to GOP chair Fred Whitaker went unreturned.

So far, the ad blitz by the most aggressive Democratic candidates – Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead, both of Laguna Beach – sidestep Slavic broadsides to tout their endorsements and lay out anti-Trump platform positions.

Harley Rouda (left) and Hans Keirstead, both Laguna Beach residents and candidates for the 48th Congressional District.
— Photos courtesy of Harley Rouda and Hans Keirstead
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