Congressman Dana Rohrabacher speaks to the Newport Beach City Council. Photo by Sam Gangwer (SCNG)

In summary

A recap of California congressional races this week: Democrats are raking it in, Rohrabacher and Rouda debate (twice!) and Duncan Hunter Jr. quadruples down.

An attack ad is called “breathtakingly gross.” A political scheme is declared “over the line.” And one award-winning journalist is called a “hack” while the cameras roll. Here’s a quick recap of what happened this week across California’s 53 congressional districts.

1. Blue wave or not, Dems are making it rain

How to sum up the latest congressional fundraising numbers published by the Federal Elections Commission?

One Republican consultant did it for a reporter with five words: “We’re getting our asses kicked.”

As Politico reports, Democratic challengers outraised Republican incumbent members of Congress in 92 districts across the country, a financing mismatch with “no historical precedent.” Of those 92 Democrats, three in California raised more than $3 million: Josh Harder, Katie Hill and Harley Rouda.

The day after the lopsided finance figures went live, the national GOP responded. In the north Central Valley district represented by Republican Jeff Denham, the National Republican Congressional Committee dropped an $800,000 attack ad against Democrat Josh Harder.

Expect more to come.

But it’s not just the size of the haul that counts. CALmatters’ Dan Morain crunched the numbers and found that the Democrats running in the seven Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 are vastly outraising their GOP counterparts among donors who give less than $200. That has value beyond the dollars and cents, writes Morain. Popularity among small-dollar donors can often indicate where the grassroots enthusiasm lies.

Learn more about the most competitive congressional races and everything on the state ballot with the CALmatters voter guide.

2. Speaking of getting hosed…

If Proposition 6 doesn’t pass, Republican congressional candidate Diane Harkey is going to need a new pair of shoes.

At a rally in support of the state ballot measure, which would roll back a recent gas tax increase, she warned that higher prices at the pump will incentivize more Californians to use other forms of transportation.

Though she had a different way of putting it.

“It’s forcing you to take bikes, get on trains, hose off at the depot and try to get to work,” she said, in a video captured by a KPBS reporter. “That does not work. That does not work with my hair and heels. I cannot do that and I will not do that.”

The event, which also included state Senate Minority Leader Pat Bates, a Republican from Laguna Niguel, will kick off a statewide “Yes on 6” tour. They’ll make their way across California by bus.

3. Rouda and Rohrabacher’s debate squared

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and Democratic businessman Harley Rouda locked horns in two consecutive debates this week. One was the formal discussion focused on policy issues of national importance, the other was a pre-event fight about cribsheets.

According to a summary by Voice of OC, the proper debate, hosted by InsideOC’s Rick Reiff, touched on Russian interference in the 2016 election, whether “Dreamers” (undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors) should be granted permanent legal status, and whether undocumented immigrants should be given access to Medicare.

Though Rohrabacher won his last election by nearly 17 percentage points in a district where registered Republicans far outnumber Democrats, recent polls show the two candidates in a dead heat.

Rouda, not surprisingly, used his final statement to ask certain voters to put their partisan allegiances aside.

‘More than anything, forget if…there’s a D or an R next to either of our names,” he said. “Vote for the person who has the character that you deserve in Congress.”

While the head-to-head won’t be aired on PBS SoCal until Sunday at 5 p.m., a pre-debate debate caught on tape is drawing attention.

Apparently it all came down to a disagreement over whether the candidates were allowed to bring prepared notes. Rouda’s staff claimed that Rohrabacher was in violation of an agreement that his campaign had arrived at with the InsideOC staff beforehand. Reiff, the show’s host, said he did not recall making such a rule.

YouTube video

“He doesn’t remember it and you do—that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?” said Rohrabacher, in an apparent reference to the sexual assault allegations against Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Rohrabacher was ultimately allowed to keep his notes and though Rouda did not follow through with a threat to pull out of the event altogether, feelings were still raw among some of his campaign staffers. Communications Director Jack d’Annibale ended the exchange by calling Reiff, who shared a 1987 Pulitzer Prize at the Akron Beacon Journal, “a hack.”

4. Too close for comfort

Last fall, a public affairs firm working against the repeal of a recent increase in the state gas tax discussed the possibility of “targeting” vulnerable Republican congressional candidates with the state’s transportation agency.

In emails uncovered by the Associated Press, a partner with the Sacramento-based Bicker, Castillo & Fairbanks notified the state agency’s deputy communications secretary that the firm was planning to publish a series of newspaper opinion pieces going after Jeff Denham, Steve Knight, Mimi Walters and Darrell Issa. Issa has since announced that he will not be seeking re-election.

The agency spokesperson responded by suggesting the agency help find an author in Issa’s district. The agency did not follow through with the suggestion. Still, that level of coordination between an advocacy organization and a state agency is “way over the line,” Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, told the A.P.

“I don’t want to say it’s a smoking gun, but that is so much more explicit than I ever would have predicted they would be,” she said.

5. “Remarkably, breathtakingly gross”

And it wouldn’t be a roundup of California congressional news without the latest unseemliness out of California’s 50th.

This week, Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr., the San Diego County Republican under federal indictment for dipping into campaign cash for extravagant personal use, quadrupled down on his unfounded claim that his Democratic opponent represents a threat to national security.

In downtown San Diego,  Hunter Sr., the embattled congressman’s father and a former member of Congress himself, held a press conference in front of the USS Midway Museum suggesting that Ammar Campa-Najjar would “pass along military information” to his Palestinian family members.

Separately, three retired Marine Corps generals wrote a letter warning that Campa-Najjar “represents a national security risk.” The letter was distributed to voters by the Hunter campaign.

Campa-Najjar, who obtained a federal security clearance as a former Department of Labor employee, is of mixed Mexican and Palestinian descent. Though his grandfather was a high-ranking member of the terrorist organization responsible for the Munich Olympic games massacre, Campa-Najjar has said that he never met his grandfather and has repeatedly denounced him.

It remains to be seen whether Hunter’s strategy—questioning his political opponent’s religious faith (Campa-Najjar is a Christian, for what it’s worth) and dredging up his dark family history—will convince the Republican-leaning members of his district to overlook his own legal woes and alleged ethical missteps. But outside San Diego County, Hunter’s tactics have been described as “breathtaking”—and not in a good way.

As one Daily Beast reporter put it on Twitter, “Even in this insane political time, a congressman who grifted veterans to buy golf supplies accusing his Arab Christian opponent of being a terrorist is remarkably, breathtakingly gross.”

Ditto from the Washington Post editorial board, which labeled a recent video from the Hunter team, “the most vile political ad of this year’s midterm elections.”

Which must be a pretty high bar.

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Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...