Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, one of the most vulnerable GOP congressmen up for reelection, lost the support of a major donor group this week after he declared that homeowners should be allowed to refuse to sell to gays and lesbians. Due to the quirks of California’s unique primary system, though, it’s possible that Rohrabacher won’t have to pay a political price for his pro-discrimination views come November.
Rohrabacher’s trouble began last week during a meeting of Orange County Association of Realtors, at which he was urged to help make exactly that kind of LGTBQ discrimination illegal at the federal level. Rohrabacher, however, made it clear he would not support that effort. “Every homeowner should be able to make a decision not to sell their home to someone (if) they don’t agree with their lifestyle,” he reportedly said.
Current federal housing law bars discrimination based on a person’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, but does not do so explicitly for sexual orientation or gender identity, though there is growing consensus in the federal judiciary that it is impossible to distinguish between sex stereotyping and anti-LGBTQ discrimination. California, meanwhile, is one of about 20 states that do explicitly extend those protections, and the National Association of Realtors bars such LGTBQ discrimination in its code of ethics.
The Orange Country (Calif.) Register got Rohrabacher’s quote secondhand but the congressman later confirmed that’s what he said and what he meant. “We’ve drawn a line on racism, but I don’t think we should extend that line,” Rohrabacher told the paper. “A homeowner should not be required to be in business with someone they think is doing something that is immoral.”
The National Association of Realtors responded by cutting ties to Rohrabacher, who had previously been declared one of the trade group’s so-called Realtor Champions, a distinction that earned him donations from the organization’s campaign finance arm and its members. Said Rohrabacher: “It’s sad to see (the association’s) priority is standing in solidarity with making sure a stamp of approval is put on somebody’s private lifestyle.”
Given his district went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump two years ago, and given your average Orange County voter presumably feels a good deal differently about LGTBQ issues than your average voter in say Wyoming or Alabama, it’s tempting to think this type of thing will cost Rohrabacher come November. And it might! But it’s far less likely to if the only other name on the ballot is also a Republican—as it very well could be thanks to the state’s so-called jungle primary, in which both parties’ candidates compete in a single nominating contest and the top two finishers advance to the general election.
As an incumbent, Rohrabacher currently appears to be a lock for a top-two finish in next month’s primary, leaving a crowded field of Democrats and Republicans battling it out for the second spot. Democrats had some success culling their herd, but not nearly enough to ensure one of the party’s candidates survives past June 5.
Complicating matters was the relatively late entry of Scott Baugh, a Rohrabacher protégé and former county GOP chairman. With his deep ties in the district, Baugh entered as the clear leader among the pack of Republicans hoping to set up an all-GOP showdown with the incumbent, and somewhat recent polling from the state suggests Baugh and the two leading Democrats—businessman Harley Rouda and scientist Hans Keirstead, who are locked in a messy fight of their own—are all in a battle for second. Both Democrats wasted no time criticizing Rohrabacher, but if Baugh snags the second spot, the incumbent and his anti-LGTBQ views would likely be left to go unchallenged this fall.*
*Update, May 26, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect that both Rouda and Keirstead criticized Rohrabacher for his comments.