NEWPORT BEACH, California—The House race in California’s 48th Congressional District was supposed to be like so many others this year: An upscale, suburban, traditionally Republican suburb that had voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, where Democrats would target a longtime and suddenly vulnerable incumbent. After 30 years in the House, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher saw his coastal Orange County district begin to shift left, and his personal eccentricities—including an abiding sympathy for Russia—hadn’t helped his standing.
But that dynamic changed dramatically on March 9, right around 2 p.m., when Scott Baugh, a former state representative and Orange County GOP chair, submitted his paperwork to challenge his former friend and mentor Rohrabacher. The emergence of a second credible Republican with considerable name recognition and plenty of campaign experience provoked a fierce backlash from Rohrabacher and a five-alarm panic from Democrats, who are suddenly worried they may not have a candidate on the ballot in November.
On Tuesday, voters in the 48th will choose from more than a dozen candidates of all affiliations, and only the top two will advance to the general election. Rohrabacher is widely expected to secure one of those spots, and Baugh is a serious threat to win the other, which would leave Democrats, whose two main candidates have been shredding each other, locked out of the general election. It’s a dynamic playing out in a handful of California districts, but the situation in the 48th is the most dire.
Baugh is at the center of it all. Rohrabacher and Democrats are both spending large sums to damage his standing, while Baugh has sought to winnow the Republican field and consolidate the anti-Rohrabacher vote on the right.
Voters who Google “Scott Baugh” are greeted with ads from Democrat-aligned PACs— “Shady Scott Baugh” and “Cheating Scott Baugh,” which resurface the felony charges stemming from his 1990s state assembly campaign—and another ad from Rohrabacher’s campaign—“Bought Baugh,” which accuses “Lobbyist Scott Baugh” of supporting “amnesty for illegals.” (Only the fourth result, from a supportive PAC, offers any kind words about the man.)
Baugh seemed to be taking it all in stride, if not outright enjoying the sight of so many others spinning their wheels, when I interviewed him on Saturday. We were sitting on a bench outside his Newport Beach office, just across the street from John Wayne Airport, and had to pause our conversation every few minutes when a plane took off. Baugh took advantage of the interruptions to attack Rohrabacher, who had recently lost an amendment vote on a bill to cut aircraft noise levels in the district.
“It’s Dana’s history. He’s passed three bills in 30 years, the last one was 14 years ago, and he’s a lone wolf,” he said. (It is true that only three of Rohrabacher’s bills have been signed into law.) He echoed Democrats’ argument that Rohrabacher has focused too much on his foreign trips—including a 2014 trip to Moscow—at the expense of the district. “He doesn’t spend time building coalitions or solving problems for the district or the nation.”
The two former allies had a falling out several years ago. In January 2016, according to Baugh, Rohrabacher told him that he wouldn’t run and that Baugh should start raising money to replace him. (Rohrabacher denies the conversation was quite so definitive.) But when Baugh later filed a fundraising report showing he had collected nearly half a million dollars, Rohrabacher issued a press release calling on him to return the money and said he would be running in “2016, 2018, and beyond.” So Baugh pulled the trigger this cycle.
“Ambition beat out gratitude in terms of Scott Baugh’s decision-making,” Rohrabacher told Talking Points Memo last week.
Baugh’s entry into the race—just hours before the filing deadline—caught Democrats flat-footed. Three Democratic candidates, who had filed on the belief that the only viable Republican in the race would be Rohrabacher, soon withdrew.
“I submitted my paperwork on Wednesday,” Rachel Payne, a Laguna Beach tech entrepreneur who had filed as a Democratic candidate, told me. “Scott Baugh entered the race on Friday. None of us knew that he was entering the race; that was a surprise. And he entered at the very last minute.”
“That changed the dynamic completely,” she continued. “That is why so many of us finally realized that we had to make that hard call.” Unfortunately for Democrats, the ballot still lists the names of Payne and the two others who dropped out.
Meanwhile, Baugh tried to persuade the rest of the Republican competition to drop out and to consolidate their support around him.
In April, Stelian Onufrei, a Republican businessman who had lent his campaign nearly $300,000, withdrew his candidacy and endorsed Baugh during a press conference in Baugh’s office. Also in attendance were a couple of other Republican candidates: Paul Martin, a proudly anti-Trump candidate, and Shastina Sandman, a pro-Trump candidate who describes herself as a “MAGApreneur.” Baugh also had lunch with another Republican candidate, John Gabbard, that day. Baugh encouraged them all to follow Onufrei’s example.
Martin and Gabbard recall Baugh clearly intimating that he’d like them to drop out and support him, but they don’t remember him being pushy about it. “I would’ve thought he would hit me up a little bit harder,” Martin told me. Both he and Gabbard stayed in.
But the effort to force out Sandman, a first-time candidate who claimed to have a large social media presence, was murkier.
Though the two were friendly early on, Sandman soured on Baugh when he began pressuring her to drop out and “join his campaign,” as she told me in an interview. She claims she didn’t know what that meant—was he offering her a job on the campaign, or just asking her to drop out and swing his support to him? She wasn’t familiar with the intricacies of campaign law, so when she asked about a job, Baugh’s staffers stopped her and told her that such discussions would have to be a “separate conversation.”
“I told her we couldn’t have that conversation until she was out of the race,” Baugh told me, “and if we could find—if there was value, we would evaluate it.”
The talk about her “value” rubbed Sandman the wrong way, and she put together a revenge plot. She texted Baugh in late April telling him what he wanted to hear: that she would drop out and endorse his campaign. She asked him to organize a press conference for the next day and to invite as much media as he could get. But her real plan, she told me, was to rail to the assembled media about “what a POS” Baugh was. The plan never came to pass, as the press conference was canceled due to a lack of interest. The two ceased communication afterward.
Baugh seemed shocked when I told him about Sandman’s press conference plan and now feels their “entire interaction” was a “fraudulent set-up.”
“I didn’t assume she was evil,” Baugh said, as more planes flew by. “I assumed she was naïve.”
“She came to me, and she wanted to know if she could get paid, and I said, ‘That’s illegal.’ I told her several times it was illegal. That you cannot offer anything of value to a candidate to drop out of the race.”
Baugh claims she asked for a six-figure salary, and he told her “that’s silly, nobody makes more than $5,000 [per month], and it’s illegal to offer anybody money to drop out of a race.” Sandman confirmed that she told him she “wouldn’t work for him for less than six figures.” Baugh flatly denies that he ever made an offer and that she was just looking for a payday. Sandman, meanwhile, calls him a “snake in the grass.” She didn’t drop out, either.
Democrats, in their desperation, have tried to capitalize on the presence of another Republican candidate who stayed in the race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and state groups are now spending in support of John Gabbard in an effort to dilute the district’s anti-Rohrabacher Republican vote. Democrats have now spent significantly more on Gabbard’s campaign than he has.
“I think the funniest thing ever would be if I came in one of the top two positions,” Gabbard told me.
The support for Gabbard is Democrats’ most mind-bending strategic expenditure. But the bulk of their money—several million dollars’ worth in recent weeks—has been against Baugh. Though Democratic candidate Harley Rouda’s campaign released an internal poll on Saturday showing Baugh in fourth (and Rouda conveniently in second), the DCCC wasn’t so sure about those numbers and maintained that the 48th District is still the party’s greatest threat of being locked out. When I asked Baugh what his polling showed, he declined to say, since it could encourage his competitors to shift their strategies.
“If the smear campaign against me were working,” Baugh said, “they wouldn’t still be spending money.”