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Just how likely is it that Cook can defeat Rohrabacher and win the 46th Congressional district?

The voter-registration numbers certainly stack up in favor of the incumbent. According the California Secretary of State’s website, as of May, some 45.2 percent of the district’s 398,000 voters were Republicans, while 31.4 percent were Democrats.

Debbie Cook at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands
John Gilhooley
Debbie Cook at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands
Dana Rohrabacher
Dana Rohrabacher

David Wasserman, house editor for the Cook Political Report (no relation to Debbie), says the district is currently rated as “likely Republican”; in previous years, it was in the “solidly Republican” camp. “This is a more significant challenge than Rohrabacher has faced in the past, but that’s not saying much,” Wasserman says. “I think he’ll have to make a mistake in order to lose this race. His statement that he’s paying attention to this race because his opponent is ‘attractive’ is a warning sign.”

It all comes down to money, or the lack of it, Wasserman says, noting that Cook’s campaign has so far failed to raise enough money to pay for the kind of television ads that might get her message across to voters. “We need to see some significant progress by Cook in the next month if she’s going to be in striking distance,” he says. “She’s really not there yet.”

According to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) website, Rohrabacher had raised $388,000 as of July 21, but hadn’t spent much of it. Joe Shaw, Cook’s campaign spokesman, claims her campaign has currently raised close to $300,000; the FEC site showed Cook had $97,000 in cash on hand on July 21.

Cook’s own party has yet to provide her with much support. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which funds strong candidates in local races, hasn’t sent her a dime. “There has been no public indication that the DCCC is going to spend money to help Debbie Cook,” says one source close to the DCCC. “She came into the race late. She’s a great candidate, but she’s in a very tough district.”

“We have several races to support and can’t favor one over the other,” says Melehat Rafiei, executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC). “But with Debbie being the mayor of Huntington Beach and having a strong following from all walks of life and a big vote-getter in that city, she has the best shot we’ve had at the seat, and I really hope she pulls it off.”

Cook’s status as Surf City’s mayor hasn’t gone unnoticed by local Republicans. Mike Schroeder, a conservative political consultant and perennial litigator, unsuccessfully sued the Orange County Registrar of Voters to remove “mayor” from Cook’s job description on the ballot. He didn’t respond to an interview request for this story.

Gus Ayer, a Fountain Valley city councilman and Cook campaign adviser, says her campaign is using state-of-the-art software provided by the DPOC that allows volunteers to target likely voters block-by-block. “It makes everything we do more efficient,” Ayer says. “The most effective way of getting votes is actually going out and talking to people door-to-door. It is several times more effective than anything else you can do.”

Although he acknowledges that Cook entered the race relatively late, he insists Cook has made considerable progress raising money. “We’ve outraised Rohrabacher in the past two reporting cycles and have ads up on TV,” he says. “We have money coming in. We’ve raised $10,000 online this week.” Cook’s chances, he adds, have less to do with how much cash she raises than Rohrabacher’s ability to sabotage his own chances. “We’ve always counted on him to do something stupid. I think it’s a safe bet.”

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After three hours, the brown field next to the decommissioned missile silo at the White Point Nature Preserve in Palos Verdes has been completely cleared of tumbleweeds. They sit in two huge piles on the service road, where the 20 volunteers have gathered to hear a few remarks from Cook.

She compliments her fellow volunteers on their weed-pulling tenacity. “We did the same thing when I worked with the Bolsa Chica Land Trust,” she says. “We cleared out the invasive weeds and planted some really beautiful sage on the mesa, and I know this is going to be just as beautiful.”

One of the volunteers, a middle-aged woman, asks Cook what they can do to help her defeat Rohrabacher. “Well, I’m sure all of you know at least one person who lives in this district,” she says. “It would be really helpful if you could talk to them and see if they might be interested in walking door-to-door, or working the phone banks, or making a small contribution.”

The sun is hot now, although there’s still a merciful breeze coming off the ocean. Cook is in no mood to give a stump speech.

“I really don’t want to talk about politics right now,” she says. “It’s a beautiful day. Why ruin it?”

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