Home » Will Orange County return to its conservative roots and sidetrack Rep. Katie Porter’s rise?

Will Orange County return to its conservative roots and sidetrack Rep. Katie Porter’s rise?

Katie Porter had a lot to cover in a short speech, so she pared down her biography to just a few quintessential details. She is a single mom with three “lightly supervised” kids, a congresswoman whose love of oversight extends to her minivan vanity plate (OVRSITE), and a very big fan of whiteboards.

“People on the internet call it the whiteboard of justice,” said Porter, as her audience at a Huntington Beach retirement community applauded in approving recognition, nearly drowning out her punchline. “It’s just a whiteboard from Target.”

The crowd, along with two-thirds of California’s 47th Congressional District, had never seen Porter on a ballot before, so the introduction was obligatory. But it was also somewhat unnecessary. After four years of besting CEOs in viral congressional hearing exchanges and building a fundraising juggernaut, Porter has become what was once unimaginable: a national Democratic star from Orange County, the onetime conservative bastion.

As the midterm elections sprint to a close, however, Porter is locked in a fierce race against Republican Scott Baugh. At stake is not only her political trajectory or the balance of power in the House of Representatives. The contest in the 47th Congressional District has also become a symbolic battle for Orange County’s ideological identity.

Congressional candidate Scott Baugh campaigns in a neighborhood in Huntington Beach this month.

Congressional candidate Scott Baugh campaigns in a neighborhood in Huntington Beach this month.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Baugh, a veteran of the county’s GOP establishment, harkens back to the traditional conservatism of the “Orange curtain,” while Porter is the best-known face of the blue wave that swept the region’s four congressional seats in 2018. Democratic registration in the county surpassed Republican a year later, fueling a sense of political transformation.

Since then, the narrative of Democratic takeover has been complicated, with Republicans reclaiming two seats in 2020, even as President Biden won the county by 9 percentage points. Now, with former President Trump out of office, Baugh is making the bet that Orange County voters are poised to return to their conservative roots.

“There are plenty of Orange County voters who don’t like Donald Trump but would support — and do support — a more conventional Republican,” said David Wasserman, a House campaign analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

Undoubtedly, Orange County is not the ruby-red territory it once was. The fact that Democrats are competitive at all in congressional races here is due to significant ideological and demographic shifts. Gina Clayton-Tarvin, a Democrat running for Huntington Beach City Council, is confident that her party has the upper hand, even if it’s a different strain of Democrat than elsewhere in the state.

“I don’t necessarily think that you can look at Orange County and say it’s ever going to be a San Francisco or Los Angeles. It’s not and it doesn’t need to be,” she said.

In Huntington Beach, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, there was no sign of dampened enthusiasm for Porter during her visit with 150 retirees at the Huntington Landmark senior community.

Rep. Katie Porter and volunteer Vicky Schulte campaign in Seal Beach.

Rep. Katie Porter and volunteer Vicky Schulte campaign in Seal Beach.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“You should run for president!” said Anne Gillespie, 82, as Porter tried — and failed — to exit the hall without disrupting the ongoing candidate forum. Another resident, Christine Stoughton, 72, attended the speech with the thought, “Maybe one day she’ll be a famous senator. And then I can say I saw her.”

In this district, which skims along the northern Orange County coastline and juts inland to Irvine, about 1 in 4 eligible voters is over 65, and Porter has prioritized outreach to them. Her speech drilled down on policy proposals for Medicare, such as lowering the eligibility age to 60, and touted Democratic legislative efforts to reduce prescription costs. Her signature prop was not on hand, though the philosophy behind the whiteboard — distilling policy into digestible bites — was evident.

“If I’d had a whiteboard today, I would have put three bullet points on it: $2,000 cap on prescription drugs, $35 insulin, free vaccines,” Porter said in an interview after her speech. “People want to know, what is this going to do for me? They don’t want to hear some abstract description of the bill.”

The visual aid turned Porter into a cable news regular, making her a familiar face that gives her a boost when she’s out knocking on doors, like those at Leisure World, a sprawling retirement community in Seal Beach. As she navigated through the low-slung residential buildings, many adorned with autumnal decor that felt incongruous in the beach-worthy weather, she was regularly greeted with exclaims of “It’s you!”

“She’s a dogged retail campaigner who is good at portraying herself as an ally of middle-class voters and standing up for them against large corporations. No doubt that is an advantage,” Wasserman said. “And yet her growing national celebrity and profile is a double-edged sword because it allows Republicans to more easily associate her with the far-left of the party and portray her as out of touch.”

Porter, who won her last race by 7 percentage points against a low-funded far-right opponent, is matter-of-fact about the political landscape she must navigate: “Orange County is purple. I think it’s going to stay purple,” she said. “The voter registration was ‘R,’ it’s now ‘D,’ but I think we’re going to continue to see a mix of Democrats and Republicans” on city councils, the county Board of Supervisors and in Congress.

Democrats have a slim 1-percentage-point registration advantage in the 47th District, which gives Porter little margin for error to build a victory. She needs to juice her Democratic base turnout in places like Irvine without scaring off moderates. She appeared at an event with Biden last month to tout Democrats’ work to reduce prescription drug costs, but did not join progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a rally the next week to energize college students at UC Irvine.

Her notoriety has yielded one clear upside: money. A lot of it. No House member has raised more money this cycle, save for Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy.

“The fact she is a national figure means she has the money to compete in this race,” said Christina Reynolds, who leads communications at Emily’s List, a group that supports Democratic female candidates. “This is an expensive market, and the Republicans want this seat back.”

So far, Porter has poured more than $13 million into television and digital advertising, according to AdImpact, a political ad tracking firm. The spending has cut into, though not depleted, a cash reserve that climbed as high as $20 million this summer, which many observers believe is stockpiled for a potential Senate run in 2024.

Congressional candidate Scott Baugh talks with a voter in Huntington Beach.

Congressional candidate Scott Baugh talks with a voter in Huntington Beach.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Baugh, her opponent, has spent just over $1 million on ads. But the former state assemblyman and county party chair said Porter’s financial advantage did not scare him.

“If she had $50 million, it wouldn’t help her because you can’t sell her brand of big government to coastal Orange County,” he said.

Baugh projected beach casual — a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, baseball hat — as he went door to door in Huntington Beach making a pitch to voters. The neighborhood felt like an archetypal middle-class suburb — one-story ranch homes with neatly landscaped front yards and a speedboat or RV in the driveway here and there.

No one greeted him with excited gasps of recognition. But Baugh’s party identification was enough for some, such as the man who assured Baugh, “I support the red, so you’ll be the option right off the bat.”

A neighbor a few doors down, over the din of her three barking dogs, accepted Baugh’s fliers. Stacie G., who did not want to give her full last name, said she doesn’t vote for Democrats for economic reasons; she tells liberal friends, “When you guys stop saying throwing more money at a problem solves the problem, I might think something else.”

Baugh is hoping that fiscal conservatism will push voters back to the right. His pitch is more Reagan than Trump: small government, a punitive approach to crime, an immigration policy that backs “tall fences [and] wide gates” to welcome newcomers seeking the American dream.

In that way, he has departed from Trump’s divisive rhetoric, given that voters’ distaste for the former president hastened the area’s lurch leftward.

“I think 2018 … was an indication that even the Republicans in Orange County weren’t big fans of Donald Trump,” said David McIntosh, president of Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group. “Now he’s not on the ballot, so people will be voting on the politics and policies of the Democratic side.”

Both sides’ attacks have grown increasingly negative. Porter’s ads have focused on Baugh’s antiabortion stance, as well as his work as a lobbyist and criminal charges he faced for campaign violations, for which he ultimately paid $47,000 in fines.

Baugh has received $8 million in air support from Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McCarthy and the Club for Growth. The ads portray Porter as clueless to people’s fears about inflation and crime. The GOP has also accused her of an “inside deal” on below market-rate faculty housing at UC Irvine, where she does not currently teach; Porter said she is abiding by university rules staying in the house.

Jon Fleischman, a veteran GOP strategist who is advising the Baugh campaign, said it’s notable the two groups are aligned, given that Club for Growth has clashed with McCarthy in the past.

“Katie Porter is proof that there is something that can unite Republicans,” Fleischman said.

Even the congresswoman’s signature prop has become weaponized in a Club for Growth ad, in which women hold up whiteboards with pointed questions about Porter’s record on the economy.

And in a recent fundraising plea sent via text message, Porter was pictured somberly holding a whiteboard displaying printed type: “Republicans have spent $6 million attacking us. My opponent supports a nationwide abortion ban. There are just 15 days left” — a campaign pitch distilled to three digestible bites.

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Enzo Smith