HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (CN) – A steady stream of tourists and locals strolled the Huntington Beach Pier one overcast October morning, some unaware they traversed a key battleground district for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
For the last 30 years, Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher has represented Huntington Beach in Orange County. Rohrabacher, 71, has touted anti-immigration rhetoric, and earlier this year said that homeowners should be able to discriminate against selling to members of the LGBTQ community.
But recent demographic shifts could signal a change in the region.
In 2016, Rohrabacher’s coastal district was one of 23 split-tickets in which voters went for Hillary Clinton while keeping their Republican representative. It marked a turning point – and Democrats set their sights on districts they viewed as held by weak Republican representatives.
Democrats could wrest control of the House if they clinch 23 seats across the nation. That includes several seats in California in historically conservative districts, like the 48th held by Rohrabacher.
Hispanic and Asian residents make up the majority of Orange County’s 3.17 million population, according to the Census Bureau – and that shift from a majority white population two decades ago presents a shift in talking points and voters, too.
Aliso Viejo resident Cathlynn Morse said her neighbors in a community consisting mostly of senior citizens think Rohrabacher does not represent their views on issues such as housing affordability, homelessness and mental health.
“They’re all connected in my mind,” said Morse. “We’re all just one bad situation away from living on the street.”
Morse’s adult son copes with mental illness and was temporarily homeless, which she said could have been devastating if he didn’t get treatment.
From 2016 to 2017, California’s homeless population grew by almost 14 percent to a total of about 134,000 people, signifying one of the largest jumps in recent history.
Rohrabacher has alienated voters like Morse with his statement that homeowners should be allowed to discriminate against people from the LGBTQ community as reported by The Orange County Register in May, and his hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric, which includes blaming California’s “sanctuary state” law for a rise in California’s crime.
But not everyone is turned off by these positions. Voter Bernard Michaels said while walking on the sand in Huntington Beach that he’s voting for Rohrabacher, because he believes the puka-shell wearing, surfing incumbent will follow through on his promise to strengthen the border.
“I voted for Obama the first time, but I see that was a mistake. Dana [Rohrabacher] has a tough fight,” Michaels said. “The media wants to paint him as a racist. He’s honest.”
Democrat Harley Rouda, a lawyer and real estate developer, has given Rohrabacher one of his first challenging races in years. Recent polling shows the two are about even, with Rohrabacher pulling 50 percent of voter support and Rouda pulling 48, according to an October 23 Monmouth University report. The results are within the poll’s margin of error, and other forecasts show the district leaning toward Rouda.
Rouda has focused his attack ads on Rohrabacher’s close ties with Russia and his anti-science stance – Rohrabacher once told southern California radio station KPCC he did not believe global warming was something to worry about.
Neither candidate was available for comment.
Not far away in the 45th District, Democrat and University of California, Irvine, law professor Katie Porter looks to unseat Republican incumbent Mimi Walters.