There are two ways for a Democrat to raise a lot of money in the 21st century. She can quietly do terrible things and hope some rich people reward her with a few big checks, or she can very conspicuously do good things and hope tons of ordinary folks cut her lots of little checks.
Freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) is betting her political career on the latter approach. And after six months in office, it seems to be paying off. Porter raised over $1 million in the second quarter of 2019 from 12,669 different contributors, with an average individual donation of $42. It’s a massive fundraising figure for a House seat, particularly outside of an election year. Porter does not accept money from corporate political action committees.
Combined with her already-hefty first quarter haul of $416,123, Porter has pulled in nearly $1.5 million so far in 2019, almost equal to what her predecessor, then-Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Calif.), spent in the entire 2016 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Only five Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), eclipsed the $1 million mark in the first quarter of 2019. Democrats have been steadily releasing strong fundraising numbers for the second quarter, which ended on June 30, but no one else in the House has yet reported a figure higher than Porter’s.
She’ll need the money. Porter represents a wealthy district in Orange County that has a pricey TV ad market and constituents with a history of backing Republicans. The GOP has had her in its sights since she narrowly defeated the incumbent Walters in November 2018, making Porter the first Democrat to represent the district since it was created in 1983.
But like many suburban districts around the country, Porter’s turf has been trending blue in recent years. The district went for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kamala Harris in 2016 and Sen. Dianne Feinstein in 2018.
Porter, meanwhile, has campaigned and governed as an unapologetic progressive. She supports impeaching President Donald Trump and made a name for herself in Congress with a series of explosive confrontations with bank executives and other scandal-plagued CEOs during congressional hearings.
Many of those moments went viral, turning Porter into one of the Democratic Party’s up-and-coming progressive icons. It’s not hard to see the link between Porter’s high-profile CEO interrogations and her enthusiastic donor base: She landed on the national radar in late February by taking Equifax CEO Mark Begor to task over his company’s massive data breach. Over the next few months, she excoriated Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan over his bank’s seemingly endless parade of outrages, confronted JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon on low bank teller salaries, and challenged multiple Trump appointees on their technical bona fides. Donations to Porter’s campaign spiked after videos of these exchanges circulated online, according to her office.
Porter’s strategy of keeping her progressive politics front and center and relying on small contributions is unusual for a Democrat in a swing district. Most Democrats facing tough reelection battles try to load up their war chests by cozying up to corporate interests. Sometimes it works: Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) survived a close contest in 2018 after helping craft a bill deregulating banks. But just as often, the corporate money doesn’t pull through. Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) also helped write that banking bill, and lost handily.
Porter will have to continue her hot streak to stay competitive in 2020. In her 2018 race against Walters, Porter outspent her Republican opponent $6.8 million to $5.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Those amounts will probably tick even higher in a presidential election year.
If Porter can keep it up, she may help establish a new model for Democratic candidates ― and a new path to power for progressives. One reason moderate and conservative Democrats wield so much influence within the caucus is because they have typically been the most effective fundraisers. By then spreading that money around, they cultivate loyalty that comes in handy during party leadership battles and when identifying policy priorities.
If progressives don’t need conservative money to win, the party’s agenda might start to shift.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced Porter’s 2019 fundraising numbers as 2018 figures. The error has been corrected.