Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Democrat Harley Rouda virtually tied in crucial California race 

Key Points
  • California GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is facing a tight race for re-election and polling neck-and-neck with his challenger, businessman Harley Rouda.
  • Republicans have a nearly 10 percentage point registration advantage in California's 48th Congressional District.
  • Among the hot issues in the Southern California congressional race are the incumbent's pro-Russia views and his positions on environmental and immigration issues.
Dana Rohrabacher, Republican U.S. Senate candidate from California, speaks during a primary election watch party in Costa Mesa, California, June 5, 2018. 
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

California GOP stalwart Rep. Dana Rohrabacher has fended off challengers before but this time around he's facing one of the toughest battles of his political life against businessman Harley Rouda, a Democrat, as the two are running in a virtual tie in the polls.

Among the issues in the 48th Congressional District are Rohrabacher's ties to the Kremlin and his views on climate change and offshore oil drilling. The two candidates also have very different positions on immigration, health care and gun control.

"The race is a toss-up, especially because Rohrabacher has some baggage with his fondness for Russia and the way that connects him to [President] Donald Trump," said Gary Jacobson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

Harley Rouda, Democrat running for California's 48th Congressional district seat in Congress, listens to speakers during his campaign rally in Laguna Beach, Calif., on May 20, 2018. 
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call Group | Getty Images

The midterm election is less than two months away and a New York Times Upshot/Siena College Poll conducted Sept. 4-6 has Rohrabacher and Rouda neck and neck at 45 percent while undecided are at 10 percent.

Race a 'toss-up'

FiveThirtyEight, a political polling analysis website, has the race in the 48th Congressional District as Democratic-leaning while Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia lists it as "toss-up."

Regardless, some political analysts suggest that if Democrats can't win the Rohrabacher seat in the 48th it may indicate the blue wave in California will probably fall short.

"This district is important, because if Democrats can't beat Rohrabacher this year, they may really not be making the kinds of inroads they want in California," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

Added Kondik: "Democrats are really hoping to pick up three, four or five seats from California — and maybe even more than that. If you get to three or four seats for Democrats, you figure that the 48th (Congressional District) would be one of them."

GOP's registration edge

California's 48th Congressional District runs along the Southern California coast from Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel and includes Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Aliso Viejo and Fountain Valley.

Republicans have a nearly 10 percentage point registration advantage in the district. That said, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the district by nearly 2 points in the 2016 election.

The 71-year-old Rohrabacher won the 2016 general election with about 58 percent of the vote, while in 2014 he received about 64 percent. During the June primary, he ran against more than a dozen challengers and received less than 31 percent of the vote.

Changing demographics

Democrats see the 15-term congressman as vulnerable and are hoping that 56-year-old Rouda, an attorney and real estate developer, will be part of a blue wave that will help them retake control of the House.

The GOP currently has a 23-seat majority in the House and attention is focused on California given several tight races and changing demographics that could work in favor of the Democrats.

Rouda and Rohrabacher declined interview requests for this story.

"I chose to run because I was floored by the fact that Donald Trump had won the presidency of the United States," Rouda said in January during a debate with Democratic congressional challengers. "Without any polling, without any idea what my chances would be, I made the decision to run for Congress to defeat Dana Rohrabacher. I believe I have the passion, the compassion, the leadership and the ability to win this race."

Rouda started his career working at a law firm and later joined his family's real estate business. He then co-founded the Real Living residential brokerage brand in 2002. The brand is now majority owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

Rouda has raised nearly $1 million more in his campaign than Rohrabacher although both now have a similar amount of cash on hand as the flow of negative ads in the race begins to pick up.

Ad messaging

On Thursday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started airing its first ad in the 48th District's general election. The 30-second ad takes a swipe at Rohrabacher's three decades in Congress as a period when he "started serving himself," including voting to increase his own pay 21 times.

Still, Rohrabacher touts his lengthy experience in Congress in an ad featured on the front of his campaign website.

"I've got 30 years of experience — and yes seniority — that can be put to work for you and for our country," he boasts. He goes on to blast the state's so-called sanctuary laws that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation and takes credit for getting several local jurisdictions to resist the sanctuary policies.

Rohrabacher, a member of Congress since 1989, sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology as well as the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He also chairs the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats.

Russia's meddling

In an interview with Bloomberg in July, Rohrabacher responded to a question about Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election by contending: "We meddle in their elections. We meddle all over the world at a much higher rate than what Moscow does."

Rouda ran an ad in January that focused on Rohrabacher's ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The ad also claimed Trump and Rohrabacher were "siding" with the Russian leader over U.S. interests.

Rohrabacher has been called "Putin's favorite congressman." Before serving in Congress, Rohrabacher worked in the White House as a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan from 1981-1988.

Rouda, who was raised by parents who were Republicans, has said previously he voted for Reagan in 1980 but believes the GOP moved in the wrong direction on social issues so he switched parties, becoming a Democrat in 1997.

Last Saturday, former President Barack Obama announced the endorsement of seven Democratic congressional candidates in California, including Rouda. Obama called Rouda "a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist helping all sorts of companies start up and grow and create opportunity. He's not running for Congress just to be in Congress. He's already been successful."

Trump's border wall

At the same time, immigration has been one of the major issues in the 48th Congressional District. Rohrabacher supports Trump's border wall and his website notes that he "opposes all efforts to legalize the status of those currently in the United States illegally."

"I'm sick and tired of both parties holding the Dreamers hostage for other things they want to accomplish" Rouda said during a candidate debate in March. "I think our first item that we need to focus on is providing a path for citizenship for not just Dreamers but those other undocumented immigrants."

On health care, Rohrabacher called the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare "disastrous" and pushed to repeal it. "Rather than make health care more affordable, as the Democrats promised eight years ago, the Obamacare bureaucracy managed to price health insurance out of reach for more and more Americans," he said last year.

ACA is "a great program," Rouda remarked at a debate earlier this year with Democratic candidates. He added, "We have to go further" and look to universal health care.

Sacha Baron Cohen

Rohrabacher also found himself the subject of a prank recently when comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's new Showtime program, "Who is America" aired a segment featuring the veteran congressman.

In the segment, the lawmaker backs a fake Israeli program that teaches kids ages 4 to 12 how to use a gun to defend themselves in the face of school violence. Rohrabacher called the segment a case of "sick fraud."

Rohrabacher received an "A" rating from National Rifle Association's Political Victory Fund for being "a champion for law-abiding gun owners." He's also received contributions totaling more than $40,000 from the gun lobby.

His Democratic challenger backs a national ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. He also wants to see a national 10-day waiting period on gun purchases and to strip firearm access for those persons listed on the government's "no-fly list."

"There's been more deaths in our country by guns than deaths on the battlefield — and that's just since 1968," Rouda said in a Democratic debate in January. He also called for eliminating "dark money that comes into our elections" as a way to reduce the political power of groups fighting gun control legislation such as the NRA.

Offshore drilling

Finally, the two candidates in the 48th Congressional District disagree when it comes to offshore oil and gas drilling.

There has been no federal expansion of oil drilling along California's coastline for more than three decades, and public opinion polling in the state has shown Californians oppose more drilling off the coast. Nonetheless, the Trump administration wants to expand offshore oil drilling.

Rohrabacher testified in 2012 that he was a surfer and fully supported offshore drilling, because the consequences of banning it would make the U.S. more dependent on foreign production.

"If I thought that offshore drilling imperiled the ocean, I would oppose offshore drilling," the Orange County congressman testified. "But that is simply not true."

On the other hand, Rouda pledged to "work to protect California's most precious asset, our beautiful coastlines, from offshore drilling. We need to focus on consistently choosing clean energy over the fossil fuels of the past."

'Dinosaur flatulence'

The two also don't agree on climate change, even though Rohrabacher sits on the House panel focused on science.

Rouda promises to "help lead the charge against climate change and work to make Orange County the world's leader in clean-tech."

"Global warming is a total fraud," Rohrabacher said in 2013. He blamed it on "liberals who ... want to create global government." He also said during a hearing on climate change in 2007 that previous global warming "could be dinosaur flatulence, you know, or who knows."

— Graphics by CNBC's John Schoen.

Correction: Dana Rohrabacher has been a member of Congress since 1989. An earlier version misstated the year.