IRVINE, Calif. — When Martie Lubetkin moved to Orange County in 1976, the region was such a conservative stronghold that a liberal friend drove around with a bumper sticker that read, “It’s OK to be a Democrat behind the orange curtain.”
“It was all orange groves and farmers and it was deeply, deeply red,” said Lubetkin, a retired speech-language pathologist from Irvine.
Democrats pulled down that curtain in 2018, sweeping all six of the county’s congressional seats. Among them was the 47th District, which was won by Katie Porter, a progressive law professor and minivan-driving single mom whose viral moments helped her attain a measure of celebrity unusual for a rank-and-file member of Congress.
But Republicans reclaimed two of those districts in 2020 and now, with Porter running for Senate, the GOP has its sights on the open seat in the 47th. The party’s hopes rest with Scott Baugh, a former member of the state assembly, who came within 3 percentage points of ousting Porter in 2022, despite being outspent $26 million to $3 million. Another Republican, businessman Max Ukropina, is also seeking the seat.
Democrats are fighting to hold on to the southern California battleground — which is likely to play a key role in determining which party controls the House — and are split between state Sen. Dave Min and community activist Joanna Weiss. Under California’s rules, the top two finishers — regardless of party affiliation — in the March 5 primary will appear on the November ballot.
“I can absolutely see why Katie Porter … [wants] to be in that United States Senate seat, but that leaves this district without an incumbent, and it makes it harder for the Democrats to hold on to it, said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College. “It will be an incredibly expensive and competitive battle.”
Min, who ran for the seat in 2018 and finished third in the primary, jumped into the race first and quickly picked up Porter’s endorsement. In May, his campaign took a hit when he was cited for driving under the influence and was later sentenced to three years probation.
Asked about the DUI charge by a supporter at an Irvine house party last month, Min said it was “an unpleasant and very humbling experience,” but he brushed aside the political implications.
“Voters particularly in this hyper-polarized environment don’t really seem to care that much about it,” he said, citing an internal poll.
Weiss’ campaign, however, released its own survey this month and concluded that Min’s arrest could sink the Democrats’ chances of holding the seat. The poll said the arrest raises “major doubts” for 66 percent of general election voters, including 71 percent of unaffiliated voters.
“Candidate quality matters,” Weiss campaign manager Emma Weinert said in a statement. “The poll confirms what we have known, that Dave Min can’t win in the primary or the general election.”
Former Rep. Harley Rouda also planned a comeback attempt running for the seat, but dropped out in April and endorsed Weiss.
The 47th district includes a swath of southern California stretching along the Pacific from the retirement villages of Seal Beach to the conservative enclaves of Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. It reaches to Irvine, the region’s fast growing and increasingly diverse biotech and education hub.
The orange groves and farms have largely been supplanted by office parks and housing tracts. The University of California, Irvine has propelled the region’s economy and drawn a highly educated workforce — nearly 60 percent of the population holds at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to a national rate of less than 38 percent.
Joe Biden would have won the district by 11 points, had the current political boundaries been in place. But his strong margin of victory belies the Democrats’ narrow voter registration edge. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Tilt Democratic.
The divide between Min and Weiss is rooted more in identity than disagreements over ideology. Both are mainstream Democrats who back the party’s priorities.
Min is Korean American and has put his biography front and center in a district that is almost 25 percent Asian. Weiss has emphasized her roots in community organizing and her ability to connect with suburban women.
Both candidates say Republican Donald Trump’s 2016 win inspired them to run for office — and both are making a play for the disaffected political middle.
“A lot of the Republican messaging you hear from Washington just doesn’t play well in districts like this one,” Min told supporters at the Irvine house party. “The Republican Party is leaving suburban educated voters behind. This was the area that Ronald Reagan described as the place where good Republicans go to die and now it’s very much up for grabs.”
Min, who like Porter is a law professor at UC Irvine, said he was never interested in running for office. “You have to call people for money all the time … and frankly, I was terrible at selling magazines as a kid,” he said. But when Trump won the presidency, “I got motivated to stand up and get involved in ways I had never done,” he added.
In the state Senate, Min serves on the Natural Resources and Water Committee. He cites a bill prohibiting gun shows at the Orange County Fairgrounds and other state property as one of his top achievements. Earlier this month, he won the endorsement of the California Democratic Party.
Weiss’ political journey from activist to candidate was also sparked by Trump’s victory. In the days following the 2016 election, the lawyer and mother of three said she noticed other women grieving Trump’s victory on social media. She invited a few of them to her house to start a letter-writing campaign, launching what ultimately became Women for American Values and Ethics, or WAVE. The group — a clearinghouse for grassroots activists — and its affiliated PAC focus on gun safety, environmental issues, public education and empowering voters, among other issues.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned the nearly 50-year legal right to abortion set in Roe v. Wade, Weiss began working to mobilize voters across the political spectrum. Recent elections in Ohio, Kansas and other red states have shown that abortion access remains a durable issue for Democrats and resonates with unaffiliated — and even some Republican — voters.
“The election of Donald Trump and the reversal of Roe is an absolute through line that’s felt in Orange County,” said Weiss, who has the endorsement of EMILY’s List, a fundraising powerhouse that supports Democratic women who back abortion rights. “This election is going to come down to reproductive choice and values.”
National Republicans, who are expected to invest in the race after Baugh came close in 2022 despite being outspent 9-to-1, said they plan to focus on the same issues that boosted the party in other suburban California districts won by Biden in 2020.
“Orange County families want solutions to skyrocketing costs, crime and homelessness, not this race-to-the-far-left primary. Democrats’ relentless infighting and disregard for voters’ frustrations will cement these candidates as extreme and out-of-touch,” said Ben Petersen, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Partially offsetting Baugh’s fundraising disadvantage in 2022, the NRCC-aligned super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund spent $6.8 million against Porter, while the anti-tax group Club For Growth spent another $2.3 million opposing her.
Through Sept. 30, Min and Weiss had each raised $1.2 million while Baugh’s total was $1.5 million. That money may not go far, however, as advertising in the Los Angeles market is expensive.
The NRCC says Min’s recent comments during a candidate forum — where he said Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas should be “in prison under indictment, at the very least” — represent an “extremist” position.
Baugh echoes those points, saying both Min and Weiss are out of step with the voters of Orange County.
“This district is center right and they are not center right. They’re not even center left, they are progressive left,” said Baugh, who as an 18-year-old voted for Reagan and considers himself a Reagan Republican.
Democrats have sought to portray Baugh as a Trump-aligned politician, however, and say his priorities no longer mesh with an increasingly diverse district.
“This is a well-educated district that wants women’s reproductive rights,” Weiss said. “These are voters that have rejected Scott Baugh twice before … and I’m confident they’ll reject him a third time.”
Both Democrats have also highlighted ethical issues Baugh faced as a state legislator, including campaign finance violations.
Amelia Matier, Min’s campaign spokeswoman, pointed to those violations and said both Baugh and Thomas were ethically compromised.
Balma, the Fullerton College political scientist, said the election will once again test Orange County’s political identity and whether Democrats can replicate the success of 2018.
“In the blue wave of 2018 … it wasn’t that suddenly people were becoming Democrats, but it was a reaction to Trump and a resistance to the Trump brand,” Balma said. “There are still certainly lots of MAGA [Republicans] and you can see it on the street corners with Trump flags flying but a lot of old-school traditional Reagan Republicans aren’t thrilled with the MAGA takeover of the party.”