Republican dubbed 'Russia's favorite congressman' loses seat after 30 years

Dana Rohrabacher once arm-wrestled Putin, but his extreme positions have increasingly alienated California constituents

Dana Rohrabacher has denied climate change, and is a figure in Mueller’s Russia inquiry.
Dana Rohrabacher has denied climate change, and is a figure in Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

The Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher would tell you he’s just a regular guy who loves his country and wishes he had more time to go surfing. But for 30 years, his southern California constituents have also dubbed him “crazy Dana”.

He’s a guy who, in the days of the Soviet Union, signed up for a week to fight alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan. A guy who, in the early 1990s, got into a drunken arm-wrestling match with a young Vladimir Putin. Putin “put me down in a millisecond”, Rohrabacher recalled years later. “His muscles are just unbelievable.”

He’s notorious for making an ill-advised link between “dinosaur flatulence” and global warming; for his open disdain of homosexuals and undocumented immigrants; for welcoming a notorious Holocaust denier to Washington; and for thinking that the Oklahoma City bombing – widely regarded as a conspiracy of homegrown far-right radicals – was an Islamist plot cooked up by Middle Eastern radicals in the Philippines.

Not even Rohrabacher’s enemies would deny he is a colorful man. After 15 terms on Capitol Hill, though, he is almost certainly about to be an ex-congressman.

Following a nail-bitingly close race – the first real contest he has faced since his original election in 1988 – Rohrabacher is lagging behind his Democratic challenger, Harley Rouda, by 4%, a margin that looks insurmountable as the last provisional and absentee ballots trickle in. On Saturday, the Associated Press called the race for Rouda.

“Going forward,” Rouda said in a statement, “my mission is to be the absolute best kind of public servant – honest, transparent, accessible and tireless in serving the greater good.”

Democrat Harley Rouda greets supporters in Laguna Beach.
Democrat Harley Rouda greets supporters in Laguna Beach. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Rouda’s implication – already voiced in multiple ways on the campaign trail – was that Rohrabacher has been none of these things. It’s certainly true that the once staunchly conservative 48th district along the Orange County coast, an hour’s drive south of Los Angeles, has fallen increasingly out of sympathy with Rohrabacher’s more extreme and eccentric positions.

His constituents don’t like his embrace of Donald Trump – they narrowly preferred Hillary Clinton in 2016. They also don’t like his climate change denial, don’t like his cosy relationship with big oil and pharmaceutical companies and, especially, don’t like his repeated and often mystifying alignment with Putin’s Russia.

A couple of years ago, Politico dubbed him Putin’s favorite congressman. The moniker has stuck. He defended Russia’s incursion into Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He has consistently opposed sanctions and lobbied to repeal the 2012 Magnitsky Act, which imposed penalties on Russian oligarchs accused of corruption and human rights abuses. So accommodating has Rohrabacher been of Russian military aggression and policy interests that as early as 2012 the FBI warned him the Kremlin was seeking to cultivate him as an intelligence asset and had even assigned him a code name. Ed Royce, then chair of the House foreign relations committee, was alarmed enough to curtail Rohrabacher’s powers as head of the subcommittee dealing with Russia. Last year, the Republican majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, was caught on tape saying he believed Rohrabacher was indeed on Putin’s payroll.

Rohrabacher calls that nonsense, and insists he wants only what is best for the US.

“You know he’s a tough guy and he’s supposed to be a tough guy, that’s what the Russian people want,” Rohrabacher once said of Putin. “But that’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to work with him.”

His questionable Russia ties only brought him fresh notoriety when Trump entered politics and the question first arose of illegal Russian help in winning the 2016 presidential election. Rohrabacher, echoing the president, has dismissed that possibility as “a brouhaha about nothing”. But he, like the president, has also become ensnared in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and is unlikely to shake himself loose just because he is leaving office.

Dana Rohrabacher after dropping off his ballot on 6 November.
Dana Rohrabacher after dropping off his ballot on 6 November. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

Among the contacts that have raised eyebrows:

  • An April 2016 meeting in Moscow with Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Kremlin-connected lawyer who, two months later, would participate in the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort.

  • A meeting with the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange shortly before Assange released a trove of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee.

  • Several meetings with Maria Butina, now charged with being a Russian agent, and at least one meeting with Butina’s associate, Alexander Torshin, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank who sought to set up a back-channel meeting between Putin and Trump during the campaign.

On top of that, Rohrabacher accepted a campaign contribution from Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager now cooperating with Mueller following his conviction on multiple charges of tax fraud, bank fraud and conspiracy, and another from George O’Neil, a conservative fundraiser suspected of helping Butina funnel Russian funds into the US electoral system via the National Rifle Association.

Rohrabacher’s opponents in the primary and the general election have pounced on him repeatedly for these connections. The boundaries of his congressional district, they joked, seemed to stretch all the way to the steppes of eastern Europe.

In response, Rohrabacher suggested the issue was overblown.

“My constituents couldn’t care less about this,” he told the New York Times last year. “They are not concerned about Russia. They are concerned about the taxes on their home. They are concerned about illegal immigrants coming into their neighborhood and raping people.”

It appears, though, that events have proved him wrong.

“It’s time our elected officials put country and community first,” Rouda told supporters on election night, to cheers and applause. Now it’s Rouda who is heading to Washington, and Rohrabacher who is forced into what is likely to be a less than peaceful retirement.