fb-pixel Skip to main content

Orange County, Calif., tests Democrats’ hope for a suburban blue wave

Katie Porter first faces an intraparty challenge.
Katie Porter first faces an intraparty challenge.Katie Porter

IRVINE, Calif. — Katie Porter is no pretender as an Elizabeth Warren acolyte. She named her youngest child Betsy. She studied bankruptcy law under Warren at Harvard Law School, became a law professor, and later co-wrote a book with her. Warren’s son Alex is the treasurer on Porter’s campaign for Congress.

And it turns out Porter shares the Massachusetts senator’s contrarian streak and penchant for a challenge.

The newly minted politician believes Warren-style populism can sell in, of all places, the affluent, often gated, and very Republican communities of California’s Orange County, including Coto de Caza, a neighborhood made famous by the decadent materialism of the “Real Housewives’’ TV franchise.


“The housewives are woke!” joked Porter, one of several Democrats seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Representative Mimi Walters.

This Orange County congressional district is among seven GOP strongholds that are a linchpin in Democrats’ plan to seize control of the House this fall. The seven districts elected a Republican to the House in 2016, but rejected Donald Trump in favor of Hillary Clinton.

In Orange County, 2016 was the first time voters backed a Democrat for president since 1936, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his second term as president.

Now the district’s red-hot 2018 race features a number of the national cross-currents roiling the 2018 midterms. Democrats, who have long sought to win in conservative, well-educated suburban districts, think anti-Trump sentiment might finally deliver them their white whale.

“The Republican coalition was fraying in the suburbs already and Trump just pulled it apart,” said Ian Russell, the former political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats. “I refer to it as the Brooks Brothers revolution.”

Walters is a two-term congresswoman with a fairly low profile in Washington. But she’s particularly vulnerable thanks to high Democratic enthusiasm this cycle and her voting record, which has been in lock step with Trump and Republican leadership. She voted to pass the tax overhaul, which hurts wealthier people in regions with high local taxes, such as Orange County.


“In this election I’m not even going to vote for Mimi Walters because she’s just a mirror to Donald Trump,” said Robert Farnsworth, a Republican business owner who plans to vote Democratic after supporting Walters in the last two elections.

But Democrats have plenty of opportunities to blow it in Orange County, particularly as they are riven by their intraparty ideological divides.

Democrats are engaged in a battle to figure out what kind of candidate and message has the best shot at energizing a winning coalition in the birthplace of the Reagan Revolution.

Porter, a University of California Irvine law professor and former state-appointed bank watchdog, is competing with three other well-funded Democrats for the chance to take on Walters.

Porter and Dave Min, another University of California Irvine law professor and former staffer to Senator Chuck Schumer, are seen as the Democratic front-runners. In June, under California’s primary rules, the top two vote-getters will move on to the general election, with Walters and one Democrat expected to make the ballot. Min has picked up the state party’s and labor unions’ endorsement, while Porter has been backed by Warren and Senator Kamala Harris of California.

Porter is running to the left of Min, refusing to take money from super PACs and big banks while echoing much of Warren’s fiery rhetoric about standing up to Wall Street. Republicans and some Min supporters argue that she is too liberal for the district, and that the Warren message will fall flat in the fall.


The Southern Californian district stretches from urban Irvine in the west, home to about 30,000 students at the University of California Irvine, to glitzy Coto de Caza in the east, with vast tracts of office parks, strip malls, and middle-class suburban homes in between. The area’s strip malls are more likely to offer Botox, Starbucks, or healthy raw fish bowls than Subway sandwiches and Walmarts.

In an interview, Walters called the candidates clones of unpopular House minority leader Nancy Pelosi.

“They’re taking the Nancy Pelosi narrative out of Washington, D.C.,” Walters said.

She denied that she is in lock step with the unpopular president. She also pointed out that she outperformed Trump by 23 points in her district in 2016.

“I think the election spoke for itself. People were voting for me and the work that I’m doing on their behalf,’’ she said. “I can’t speak to what they thought of the president.”

The Walters team also is using Porter’s close association with Warren against her.

“Katie Porter being so close to Warren will certainly help her raise money, but it’s going to really hold her back as a general election candidate if she should make it through,” added David Gilliard, a consultant for Walters.

But Porter said her campaign has conducted polling that shows Warren appeals to a wide swath of voters in the district, including the third of the population who are independents.


“She’s so great, I love her,” Porter says of Warren. She frequently quotes the senator, and, when speaking in public, raises both arms for emphasis in a way that’s reminiscent of her former teacher.

Katie Porter studied bankruptcy law under Elizabeth Warren at Harvard Law School and co-wrote a book with her.
Katie Porter studied bankruptcy law under Elizabeth Warren at Harvard Law School and co-wrote a book with her.Katie Porter

The senator has sent a handful of fund-raising e-mails on Porter’s behalf, and visited in October to campaign for her. Their relationship goes back nearly two decades, to when Warren first agreed to help Porter become a law professor after a lunch at Border Cafe in Cambridge. Warren recruited Porter to help on a massive bankruptcy research project the following semester. They later co-wrote a book about debt and consumer protection.

But unlike Warren, who was the only name on the Democratic primary ballot in 2012, Porter faces a fierce battle ahead of the general election.

Min and Porter’s supporters clashed over an endorsement dispute at the state party’s convention in February, and one local activist says she believes their relationship has devolved to the point of being a “feud” that threatens to divide the left ahead of the general election.

“I’m not quite sure where it all comes from,” said Sharon Toji, a Min supporter. “Part of it may be that they’re both professors on the same faculty.”

Orange County Republicans are relying on their 11-point voter registration advantage in a House district that, since it was created in 1983, has never sent a Democrat to Washington.


“Two rather far-left academics at UC Irvine putting up TV commercials against each other? To me, I love it,” said Fred Whitaker, the chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County.

Porter has situated herself to the left of Min on health care, a key litmus test issue in primaries across the country. Min has said he backs “universal health care” while Porter says she specifically wants “Medicare for all,’’ a measure first introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist independent.

Republicans and even some Democrats say Orange County’s voters — who are reliably pocketbook-minded — will shy away from electing anyone who wants to expand social programs at taxpayer expense.

“They are supporting single-payer health care, socialized medicine, and that does not fit well with the district,” Walters said.

But Democrats have a rejoinder: Walters has already raised your taxes.

In December, Walters was the only Orange County Republican to vote for the Republican tax cut bill, which capped the cherished deduction on local and state taxes. But the congresswoman insists she made the right call and is not particularly worried about Election Day.

“I take every race that I run very seriously and I am not working any harder than I have in the past,” she said. “I’m not treating this race any differently than I’m treating any other races.”

Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin