First-term House Democrats recently expanded their financial advantage in competitive races, and few places had a gap wider than California’s 45th District.
Democratic Rep. Katie Porter has built up a massive campaign war chest, ending the first fundraising quarter of 2020 with nearly $4.6 million on hand. That’s more than 30 times the total of her Republican opponent, Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths, who had $151,000 in the bank on March 31.
In 2019, Porter proved she had built a loyal donor base by raising more than $1 million for three quarters in a row. Then she followed up this year with $2.1 million raised from January through March.
GOP strategists still believe the one-time protégée to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is too liberal for the traditionally red Orange County district. But some say her strong fundraising is putting seat out of reach in 2020.
“There’s a view that the 45th [District] is a two-cycle project,” said California GOP strategist Matt Cunningham, meaning it might take until the 2022 midterms to oust her.
Democrats who flipped House seats in 2018 have consistently posted strong fundraising numbers by building large email lists and tapping into energized grassroots donors. Porter has led the pack as she built a national profile fueled by viral videos.
Her latest viral video came earlier this month, when shesaid during an appearance with late night host Samantha Bee, “If you’re full of bulls—, I’m comin’ for ya. Like I just don’t have time. I’m a single mom, the dinner’s burning, I’m late to something, I have 4,000 emails, my hair is frizzy, I haven’t shaved my legs in a week. No. Bull. S—.” The video, pinned to Porter’s campaign Twitter account, has 4.9 million views.
Most of her viral moments have involved less swearing and more white boards. A former law professor and consumer protection lawyer, Porter’s dogged questioning of administration officials in committee hearings have launched her into the national spotlight.
“Oreos will never look the same to me,” said Orange County Democratic Party Chairwoman Ada Briceño, referring to Porter quizzing Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson on a term referring to foreclosed properties, and Carson asking if she was referring to the cookie.
The hearing videos, circulated on social media, have translated into campaign cash. Porter’s campaign said it saw a bump in fundraising in March after she pushed the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to commit to free testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that has sparked a pandemic.
“When things like that happen, people respect that,” said Nora Walsh-DeVries, Porter’s campaign manager. She stressed that the viral moments aren’t happenstance, but products of diligent preparation from Porter and her staff.
“I’ve seen that viral video over and over,” said Cunningham, the GOP strategist who lives in the 45th District, referring to the back-and-forth with the CDC head. “That’s the kind of thing that resonates across partisan lines.”
Those moments also endear Porter to the Democratic base and its energized grassroots donors. Her average donation in the first quarter was $23, according to Porter’s campaign. Her latest report to the Federal Election Commission shows that out of the $5.6 million she’s raised since the last election, $2.1 million of it came in amounts of $200 or less.
Walsh-DeVries said Porter works to build relationships with those small-dollar donors.
“The one piece of it that is strategic is we don’t take these grassroots donors for granted,” she said. “We have been doing calls where we’ve invited a lot of those people who are low-dollar, active donors to get on a call with the congresswoman and hear from her and be able to ask her questions.”
That work has translated into a significant financial advantage in her race, which could be particularly helpful as the pandemic has shuttered in-person fundraisers.
“2020 looks to be a difficult year for people running against incumbents,” said Dave Gilliard, a California Republican strategist who worked with former Rep. Mimi Walters, whom Porter unseated in 2018.
That incumbent advantage could be exacerbated in districts like Porter’s, which sits in the expensive Los Angeles media market.
Walsh-DeVries said Porter and her team are still taking the race seriously. Briceño said local party activists are doing the same, but she acknowledged Porter’s fundraising “makes us breathe a little better.”
A GOP target
Republicans still believe the traditionally red district leans in their direction. The highest percentage of voters, 36 percent, are registered with the GOP. Thirty-three percent are registered Democrats, while 26 percent are “no party preference” voters.
But the diversifying Orange County is also emblematic of other areas where Democrats found success with well-educated voters who’ve supported Republicans in the past but have been turned off by President Donald Trump’s brash style. A majority of residents in the Porter’s district have a bachelor’s degree. The median income is $106,000.
Democrat Hillary Clinton won the 45th District by 5 points in 2016 after GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney had carried it by 12 points four years earlier. In 2018, Porter defeated Walters by 4 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates her 2020 race Likely Democratic.
Gillard, the GOP strategist, chalked Porter’s win in 2018 to a bad national environment for incumbents. He and other Republicans believe there are still voters in the district who are fiscally conservative, which makes Porter vulnerable in the future. She supports “Medicare for All” and was a presidential campaign co-chairwoman for her mentor, Warren, who made “big structural change” her rallying cry.
“She doesn’t have the luxury of representing a district that buys into her philosophy,” Gillard said.
Off the 2020 map?
Still, Gillard believes Porter is favored to win reelection in November.
“I see here winning this year and having a challenge in 2022 from a better- funded and organized candidate,” he said.
While multiple Republicans ran in the March 3 primary, Gillard said some strong contenders sat out the race. They may be waiting until 2022, when the district is redrawn in decennial redistricting, and when a midterm environment might favor Republicans.
Raths, a Marine veteran who ran for Congress unsuccessfully in 2014, secured a spot on the November ballot with 18 percent of the primary vote and he is not known as a strong fundraiser. One GOP consultant pointed to an Orange County Register report of Raths using a celebrity video service to pay for positive videos from conservative commentator Tomi Lahren and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as evidence that he is a problematic candidate. Raths’ campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
California GOP strategist Rob Stutzman thought Raths’ military background and local base of voters still make him a viable candidate but said he’ll need help from outside groups.
“One of the reasons I don’t think it is a 50/50 race is because of [Porter’s] fundraising advantage,” Stutzman said.
Porter’s allies say her advantage also lies in her reputation as a fighter.
“People see her as someone who is always looking out for them,” Walsh-DeVries said. “Whether or not they agree with her on every single issue, they see her effectiveness.”