(Editor's note: These are the final segments in our series "Climbing the Hill," in which we followed two new members of Congress. Democrat Katie Porter will be featured Sunday. Republican Pete Stauber will be featured Monday.)
ORANGE COUNTY, CALIF., AND WASHINGTON, D.C. -- “What do you want government to do for your life?” That’s the question Peggy Huang asks prospective voters at a Starbucks in Orange County, California. Huang is a Republican running against first-term U.S. Representative Katie Porter, who last year became the first Democrat ever elected in California’s conservative 45th district.
Since then, Porter has gained national recognition through her sharp questioning of CEOs and government officials during congressional hearings in Washington.
“She’s more national,” admits Huang, but says in California, “we know politics and in all things, politics is local.”
Greg Raths, a retired United States Marine Corps fighter pilot, is another Republican candidate running against Porter. He says Porter doesn’t “fit the mold” of the area. Raths, the mayor of the second-largest city in the district, Mission Viejo, contends it’s a “very conservative” district where “all 10 cities are run by Republican mayors and councils.”
For a freshman member of the House of Representatives, it can be a shock having to concentrate on reelection before the first year ends. Already six Republicans and one Democrat have filed election papers to run against her, but one of those Republicans has already dropped out because of lack of funding.
According to third-quarter reports from the Federal Election Commission, Porter leads the pack with $2,461,688 raised for her campaign, three times that of her closest competitor.
Impeachment vs conservative area
During her first year, Porter has proved to be a formidable force. In her first interview with VOA at the beginning of this year, she said she wanted to champion “issues of economic opportunity for working families, and for working parents, including thinking about how people can afford homes, build wealth, save for college, and save for retirement.”
As she arrived in Congress and was named to the House Financial Services Committee, she carved a niche for herself through tough, blunt questioning, often playing the role of a low- to middle-income American to highlight the witnesses’ inattention to regular citizens. This earned her kudos from the House Democratic leadership and an aspect of fame through regular appearances on cable TV news programs.
Porter connected to her constituents by regularly conducting town halls during the first half of the year, but has held them less frequently since then. She told VOA it is a challenge to find “venues that are large enough to accommodate everybody who would like to attend.”
In June, Porter became the first freshman House member from California to announce her support of an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. Her competitors accused her of sowing seeds of divisiveness with her Twitter announcement. They predict it will cost her the election.
Ted Denney owns Synergistic Research, a niche research and technology company that employs 30 and has annual sales of $10 million. He says if Porter wins the district again in 2020, he will move his audio business elsewhere, part because of her support of impeachment.
“I don’t want this wall of resistance against the president,” Denney says. “I support his policies. Is he a perfect guy? No, but I don’t care. He’s effective.”
In a videotaped message to constituents, Porter acknowledged that launching an impeachment inquiry would be divisive but said she believes it is necessary.
“I know deeply what this means for our democracy,” she said. “But when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, I cannot with a clean conscience ignore my duty to defend the [U.S.] Constitution.”
Courting the young vote
Heidi Hu is asking about a clipboard. She’s sitting at an iron table outside a coffee shop in Santa Ana, California, learning about voter registration. She is being trained by Field Team 6, a nationwide group of volunteers, registering new voters for Democrats in 2020.
Hu drove an hour south from Los Angeles to sign up college students at the University of California at Irvine. Young voters helped propel Porter to victory in 2018. State figures show voters ages 18 to 24 rose by nearly 20% more than the previous midterm election in 2014.
Hu says the key to Porter’s reelection will be again turning out large numbers of college students.
“Their values are more aligned with the Orange County of the future,” Hu said.
Porter prevailed in Orange County, an historically conservative portion of the 45th Congressional District, but Hu knows that Porter is vulnerable in that area and must build up her Democratic support among college students to offset Republican voters.
One of those students is Bryan Pham who will be voting for the first time in 2020. He says even though his family is conservative, “I have certain beliefs of my own and I identify with the Democratic party.”
In less than a year, Porter, a former law professor, has sponsored 23 bills in the House. In last year’s congressional session, the average for a first-year representative was 14 and the most introduced was 31, so Porter is well ahead of the curve.
One of Porter’s bills has passed the House but has yet to be introduced in the Senate. The “Help America Run Act” would give candidates more freedom to use campaign funds for child care, health care premiums and elder care. Porter, a single mother of three children younger than 12, said the bill would have helped her when she was a candidate.
“The goal here is to make our Congress more diverse and to make it possible for any American who’s qualified and wants to serve in the U.S. Congress to have the opportunity to do that,” she said.
Nonprofit and special interest groups rate lawmakers’ voting records.
For first-year representatives, these are the first grades published during their two-year tenure. For Porter, the first two grades run along party lines. The conservative Heritage Action for America, typically aligned with Republicans, rates members’ votes on key conservative legislation. It gives Porter a zero.
Freedom Works, another conservative group, gives her a score of 8 out of 100, based on her votes on issues dealing with economic freedom.
The surprise was an “F” given by the group Progressive Punch, based on a formula that compares the voting record of a control group of 33 dominant progressive members of Congress with the representative’s voting record.
Most other groups will wait to publish grades at the end of the year.
Competitors will typically use the voting record and bills sponsored in their challenge to the incumbent. The incumbent uses the voting record to show how they are supporting the constituent needs in the district.
Reflecting on a hectic first year in Congress, Porter said, “I feel like I’m getting my sea legs under me ... there is a learning curve to this job. And there should be. This is a big task [legislating] that the American people have trusted us with.”
The California primary to determine Katie Porter’s Republican challenger is in early March with the general election in November 2020.