Paul Martin, a Republican who challenged Rohrabacher in the June primary, told me he believes that the congressman’s defeat in California’s Forty-Eighth District was more a reflection of voters’ desire for a moderate candidate than of their frustration with Rohrabacher’s coziness to the Kremlin.
“I made my campaign about the gruesome human-rights abuses of Putin, especially his suspension of the adoption of Russian orphans after the passing of the Magnitsky Act,” Martin told me, referring to Putin’s retaliatory measures after Congress passed a 2012 law designed to sanction high-level Kremlin officials. “But I’m not sure the voters here cared.” (A spokesman for Rohrabacher was not immediately available for comment.)
Read: A Rohrabacher aide is ousted after Russia revelations.
Rouda similarly went after Rohrabacher. He accused the lawmaker in a debate last month of “meeting with Russian operatives” in 2016, and criticized him for downplaying Russia’s election interference. “Representative Rohrabacher has said that 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that were staffed by working men and women from diverse backgrounds, including our U.S. military … were all wrong,” Rouda said, “and that the Russians had nothing to do with meddling with our elections.”
On the national stage, Rohrabacher has become best-known for his defense of Putin’s leadership. A fierce Cold Warrior in the 1960s who later worked for Ronald Reagan, Rohrabacher had a dramatic change in attitude toward Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. By 2014, he was publicly excusing Putin’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine—viewed globally as a major breach of international law—and characterizing Russia, which had recently placed the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny on house arrest, as a bastion of free speech and Christian piety.
“There have been dramatic reforms in Russia that are not being recognized by my colleagues,” Rohrabacher said at the time. “The churches are full. There are opposition papers being distributed on every newsstand in Russia. You’ve got people demonstrating in the parks. You’ve got a much different Russia than it was under communism, but you’ve got a lot of people who still can’t get over that communism has fallen.”
Rohrabacher has attracted attention more recently for his involvement in the congressional and federal investigations of Russian election interference. After Democrats take over the House inquiry in January, Rohrabacher’s relationships abroad—not only with Russian government officials, but also with the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange—could be more closely examined. Like President Donald Trump, Rohrabacher has downplayed the significance of Russia’s interference and claimed in March that the U.S., too, has “tried to influence their elections, and everybody’s elections.” And he’s called Assange, who gave Russia a platform to disseminate stolen emails from prominent Democrats via WikiLeaks, a “very honorable man.” He tried to strike a deal with Trump that would have exonerated Assange in exchange for supposed evidence that Russia wasn’t WikiLeaks’ source for the hacked emails.