An Elizabeth Warren Protégé Is Defying The Odds In The Cradle Of California Conservatism

For Katie Porter, moderation and Medicare for all are both part of the playbook.
Katie Porter speaks at a Human Rights Campaign volunteer kickoff in Tustin, California, on Oct. 15, 2018.
Katie Porter speaks at a Human Rights Campaign volunteer kickoff in Tustin, California, on Oct. 15, 2018.
Digital First Media/Orange County Register/Getty Images

MISSION VIEJO, Calif. ― California is ground zero for the Democratic effort to flip the House, with the party setting its sights on upward of eight GOP-held seats in the Golden State.

But Katie Porter’s bid for Congress in California’s 45th Congressional District wouldn’t just mean another Democrat representing one of the most liberal states in the nation.

Porter, a former law student of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), is running in Orange County, traditionally a deep red bloc in a sea of blue. And she’s doing it as an unabashed supporter of single-payer health care, expanded Social Security, tough banking rules and ensuring a debt-free college education.

Progressives have long argued that populist economics have untapped political potential in supposedly red areas ― though their theory usually focuses on struggling blue-collar regions.

A win by Porter, who beat back more moderate rivals in a June primary, would test the appeal of these policies in a higher-earning district.

California’s 45th, where Porter is seeking to replace the two-term Rep. Mimi Walters (R), has a sizable population of affluent, college-educated voters. For example, over two-thirds of adults in the 280,000-person city of Irvine have a college degree, more than twice the rate of the country at large. The median household income there is nearly $94,000, compared with about $55,000 nationally.

The political character of the O.C.’s sprawling suburbs have changed over the years as socially liberal voters abandoned the Republican Party and Asian-American families with more moderate political leanings began flowing in. (The county’s Asian population went from 13.6 percent in 2000 to over 21 percent in 2016.)

The ascent of Donald Trump, whose bigoted views and vulgar demeanor turned off many Republican-leaning voters in the area, accelerated this process. He lost to Clinton in seven GOP-held California House districts in 2016, including the 45th, where Clinton bested him by more than 5 percentage points.

“Demography is destiny,” said Matthew Beckmann, a political scientist at UC Irvine and neighbor of Porter’s. “The combination of a diverse, educated electorate with a sufficient number of moderate Republicans is what makes the 45th ‘swing.’”

“The anti-Trump vote is also an anti-corrupt-rich-guy vote.”

- Jeff Hauser, Center for Economic and Policy Research

What’s more, Porter has tailored her message to the district with the discipline of a seasoned politician. She adopts centrist stances on some fiscal matters, emphasizes the national implications of her contest and hammers away at two-term Rep. Mimi Walters (R), whose conservative voting record is a liability with moderates.

Nonetheless, if Porter prevails, it would not only show that progressive economic policies are political winners in highly educated, upper-middle-class communities, it would be a significant feather in Warren’s cap ahead of the 2020 presidential primary.

“The anti-Trump vote is also an anti-corrupt-rich-guy vote, and the suburban Democratic women attracted to the Democratic Party are attracted to Elizabeth Warren’s economic agenda, as well as the Democratic Party’s greater tolerance on social issues,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, who previously worked as a strategist at the AFL-CIO.

None of it is particularly surprising to Porter though, who dismissed the assertion that hers is a “wealthy” district.

“It’s a very middle-class district,” she interjected during an interview with HuffPost at a campaign field office. Porter noted that the high cost of housing in the area and rising costs of education, health care and retirement were squeezing even families with higher degrees and decent-paying jobs. “There are a lot of pressures that families face here in order to provide for themselves.”

Katie Porter campaigns alongside former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan at the University of California, Irvine campus.
Katie Porter campaigns alongside former Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan at the University of California, Irvine campus.
Digital First Media/Orange County Register/Getty Images

The Suburban Awakening

Katie Kalvoda, a former wealth management executive from Laguna Hills, thinks of herself as the quintessential moderate ― a “purple voter.” She felt confident on Election Day in 2016 that Clinton would defeat Trump, so she voted for Walters, a Republican she admits she knew little about, to serve as a check on Clinton.

When Trump won, Kalvoda, like so many other centrist suburbanites, was shocked. She immediately became involved in Women for American Values and Ethics, or WAVE ― an Orange County incarnation of the myriad women-led Resistance groups that have popped up on Facebook pages across the country.

Kalvoda and several friends from WAVE then formed Asian Americans Rising to mobilize the Asian-American vote for Democrats. She recounted the tale of her transformation at an Oct. 9 panel discussion in Irvine sponsored by the new group. More than 40 people showed up to hear from Porter, Rep. Judy Chu of East Los Angeles County, and experts representing every Asian nationality present in the district.

Voting for Walters is “the biggest regret of my life,” Kalvoda told the attendees.

“Every day of my life now I’m paying for that sin,” she added, prompting laughter.

Across the district, other voters shared similar stories ― of voting Republican out of habit, only to wake up shocked to learn that the Grand Old Party was now the party of Trump, a man whose vulgar personality and xenophobia repelled them.

Dissatisfaction with Walters, as well as Trump, is a big part of why the latest public poll still shows Porter with a modest lead. That, and not Medicare for all, is the heart of Porter’s pitch to voters.

“My opponent Mimi Walters votes with Donald Trump 99 percent of the time,” Porter began her brief remarks at the Asian Americans Rising event. “And some of her votes ... are hurting families right here in Irvine and in Orange County, day in and day out.”

Walters, a former investment banker who now serves in House Republican leadership, has indeed done little to distinguish herself from the parts of Trump’s agenda that are unpopular in Orange County. Unlike some California Republicans in vulnerable districts, including Dana Rohrabacher in the neighboring 48th, Walters voted for the Republican tax cut legislation. The law dramatically reduced the state and local tax deduction, or SALT, which the highly taxed, affluent residents of Orange County benefited from disproportionately.

Porter’s support for reinstating the deduction is a key part of her stump spiel ― a way of showing that she, unlike Walters, would put her district before her party. It’s also part of what won her the backing of both the California and National Associations of Realtors, trade groups spending serious cash to get Porter elected.

More controversially, it’s given Porter grounds to buck the California Democratic Party on Proposition 6, a GOP-sponsored referendum repealing a 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax passed by the Democratic legislature and governor. Proponents of the tax, chief among them the state’s building trades unions, consider it a key step toward modernizing the state’s decaying roads and bridges.

But Porter, whose support for the repeal referendum cost her the endorsement of labor union LiUNA, says the loss of the SALT deduction has been punishing enough for her would-be constituents.

“I can’t support a gas tax on Orange County families at a time when Mimi Walters is going to raise their taxes,” Porter told HuffPost. “We have to have infrastructure investment and I’ll fight for it at the federal level.”

What’s more, unlike some other vulnerable Republicans, Walters voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act ― and is now scrambling to claim, inaccurately, that she is a champion of protections for people with pre-existing conditions.

Walters, who was registered to vote in a different district as recently as June 2017, is not doing herself favors with constituent engagement either. Constituents complained to HuffPost about the absence of opportunities to speak with her.

Walters has declined invitations to debate Porter or appear alongside her in any forum, according to Porter. Porter met her once, at a Memorial Day ceremony in the district this past May.

“I was really excited to meet her. She didn’t share my enthusiasm,” Porter deadpanned with a smirk.

Walters’ staff declined to speak with HuffPost during an in-person visit to her campaign headquarters or make Walters available for an interview. They also did not respond to multiple emails with detailed lists of questions about Walters’ policy positions.

Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) leaves a House Republican Caucus meeting in May 2018.
Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.) leaves a House Republican Caucus meeting in May 2018.
Bill Clark/Getty Images

Not A Socialist — Not Even ‘Progressive’?

Porter grew up the daughter of a farmer-turned-banker in a small Iowa town without stop signs, let alone traffic lights. When the farm crisis set in in the 1980s and there was a run on a local bank, Porter, then in middle school, remembers how quickly the bank reopened thanks to the help of the federal government, which restructured the bank’s finances.

For families struggling with debts they incurred to sell crops that had plummeted in value, however, federal help was not forthcoming. Many families in Porter’s community never really recovered, she told a crowd of about 100 voters who assembled to hear her and Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) discuss seniors’ issues in Mission Viejo on the evening of Oct. 9.

“Washington works for those who pay for it ― for those who write the big checks, for the special interests,” she said. “And it doesn’t work very well for all of us.”

Porter went on to earn her college degree at Yale and a law degree at Harvard, where then-professor Elizabeth Warren, a bankruptcy law expert, would become a mentor. Porter collaborated with Warren in studying the role of high health care costs in household bankruptcies in the United States.

A September 2017 fundraising email for Porter that Warren sent her supporters features a photo of Warren and Porter at Porter’s graduation in 2001.

“I’ve seen Katie’s commitment and grit up close and personal,” Warren wrote. “I’ve seen her determination to tell the story of a rigged game. And I’ve seen her put it all on the line to fight for what she believes in.”

After a period in private practice, Porter embarked on a career in academia. Her expertise on bankruptcy and consumer law has taken her as far as Myanmar, where she advised the government on setting up its own consumer protection infrastructure.

In 2012, Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who was then California’s attorney general, tapped Porter to oversee the state’s distribution of its share of a $25 billion national settlement with big banks for fraudulent foreclosures. She was tasked with monitoring the banks to make sure they followed through on their commitments, as well as connecting homeowners to the resources they were owed.

Harris told HuffPost that Porter combined an incredibly detailed grasp for policy with a visceral appreciation of how those details affected ordinary people.

“She really understands the bigger picture and what’s at stake,” Harris said.

When Porter decided to run for Congress, she won the near-immediate support of Sens. Warren and Harris. She also became the first congressional candidate this election cycle to be endorsed by EMILY’s List, a group that backs pro-abortion rights Democratic women.

The June primary race turned nasty in California’s 45th. Porter’s closest rival was fellow UC Irvine law professor Dave Min, whom Porter helped recruit to the school. He ran on a more moderate platform, which notably did not include Medicare for all.

In the course of a contentious fight for the endorsement of the California Democratic Party in February, some of Min’s allies allegedly spread rumors that the circumstances of Porter’s divorce and restraining order she had secured against her ex-husband were politically disqualifying.

Porter opened up to HuffPost about the whisper campaign in May. Porter had called the police on her then-husband in 2013 when he grew physically violent toward her and their then-infant child. They are now divorced and he lives in Oregon.

“I’m not going to let someone, anyone, say that because a woman’s been a victim of domestic violence, because she stood up for her children’s safety, she’s disqualified,” she said at the time.

Min’s campaign vehemently denied in May that he had any involvement in the rumors, noting that his wife is a “nationally recognized” domestic violence expert.

Porter has since reconciled with Min, who introduced the panel at the Asian Americans Rising event.

“I’m gonna be skeptical of any tax increase.”

- Katie Porter

Porter’s support for Medicare for all undoubtedly helped her in the primary, but it has also had some benefits in the general election. It’s earned her the endorsements and modest financial backing of the pro-single payer National Nurses United and Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s (D) Medicare for All PAC.

Virginia Tibbetts, a retired teacher from Tustin, was a diehard “Bernie or bust” partisan in 2016, refusing to vote for Clinton in the general election and formally deregistering from the Democratic Party in protest over how the Democratic National Committee treated Sanders during the primary. She’s not even a fan of Warren, claiming the Massachusetts senator did not do enough to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline.

But Tibbetts had no reservations about supporting Porter.

“I’m fired up mostly because of our health care and that’s a big issue for her ― Medicare for all,” said Tibbetts, who sported a Porter pin at the Nuns on the Bus event in Irvine.

At the same time, Republican groups have seized on Porter’s stance on the issue to argue that she would raise middle-class taxes to finance a $32 trillion government takeover of health care. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), has spent over $4 million in the race. A television ad the group aired in September featured an Irvine woman lamenting Porter’s support for single-payer.

A July study by the libertarian Mercatus Center indeed found that adopting a Medicare for all system would cost $32 trillion over a 10-year period. But it also found that the program, while formally shifting health care costs onto the government’s books, would save the country $2 trillion overall, ensuring that consumers come out on top.

Economists debate exactly how much of the cost of implementing Medicare for all would ultimately have to come through new taxes, and how much of it could be achieved through even greater savings on the cost of the underlying care. Even if it’s a net financial gain for the average American, financing Medicare for all would almost certainly require some form of higher taxation to get off the ground in the near term.

Porter prefers to emphasize the cost control part of the equation, arguing that empowering Medicare to negotiate lower prices on prescription drugs and taking on powerful middlemen like pharmacy benefit managers would get the country most of the way there.

“I’m gonna be skeptical of any tax increase,” she told HuffPost.

At times, Porter’s efforts to avoid being pegged as a liberal firebrand can seem contrived. If elected, she plans to join the Medicare for All Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But when asked whether she identifies as a “progressive,” Porter is noncommittal.

“I am going to push to advance issues that will help America make progress,” she said. “I define those to include tackling climate change, working to create more clean energy jobs, pushing for a health care system that is affordable and effective.”

One of the reasons that Porter’s association with Warren hasn’t proven more politically harmful in the district is that Warren, unlike Trump or House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, has a net-positive approval rating in the district, according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the data.

It can’t hurt that unlike Bernie Sanders, who identifies as a “democratic socialist,” Warren proudly calls herself a “capitalist.”

So does Porter, who encouraged HuffPost to ask her about it.

“I have spent my entire career fighting for a system of capitalism that gives every American a fair shake in our economy,” she declared. “And that’s exactly what I’ll do in Congress.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Dave Min was involved in spreading rumors about Katie Porter’s divorce. There was only evidence that one of his supporters had done so, and Min denied involvement in the rumors.

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