Trump vs. California
More from the series
OZY and McClatchy are teaming up to deliver in-depth coverage of this year’s most pivotal political campaigns in the run-up to the U.S. midterm elections.
Robert Farnsworth is a moderate Republican voter, someone who thinks climate change is real but who’s skeptical about raising the minimum wage.
He also hates Donald Trump — a man he labels a “coward,” “unpatriotic,” and a “racist.”
And yet, fury over a chaotic and polarizing presidency has not made Farnsworth — or a few million Republican voters like him — a sure vote for Democrats trying take the House. While he thinks Republican Mimi Walters in California’s 45th Congressional District has been too deferential to Trump, the alternative is not a centrist Democrat palatable to right-leaning voters.
It’s Katie Porter, an unapologetic liberal who has co-authored two books with Elizabeth Warren, attacks big banks, and advocates a single-payer healthcare system that would cost trillions to implement.
“If Katie Porter won,” Farnsworth tells me over chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant on primary day, “I would have to take a hard look at it.”
All across the midterm election map this year, voters will be torn between a visceral disgust of Trump’s perceived racism and misogyny and a deep-seated concern that Democrats will over-tax and over-regulate the country. And nowhere is that tension more evident than in California’s 45th District.
[For more coverage of 2018’s bellwether districts, check out our Ground Game page.]
Indeed, the hesitation Farnsworth expressed is driving both parties’ political strategies in districts that are home to many affluent, well-educated suburban voters. It has given Democrats new opportunities in once deep-red districts, ranging from Houston to Richmond, Virginia.
In Orange County — once the beating heart of the modern GOP that until Hillary Clinton hadn’t backed a Democrat for president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt — Democrats are targeting four seats represented by Republicans.
“Trump was a shock to the system,” said Tim Burns, a Democratic activist from Orange County. “That’s why there is a congressional race here. This was not a place where serious Democrats would bother running or think it was even plausible to get into the race.”
But like Farnsworth, many of the voters Democrats need to win over here are far from liberal. Republicans think they can still sway many of them with pocketbook arguments – especially, they hope, against a big-government Democrat like Porter.
On the night Katie Porter won her primary, she was flanked by a national progressive leader trying his best to remake the Democratic Party.
“Katie Porter’s headquarters is the center of the progressive universe tonight,” gushed Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an activist-driven group often at war with other, more moderate Democratic factions.
It was after midnight, and Green was positively giddy. Of the hundred or so supporters who came to campaign headquarters when the night began, only a handful remained by then, sipping beer and wine as they talked excitedly amongst themselves. Green had been on hand the whole night, advising Porter and making small talk with reporters as the results came in.
Porter had bested a more centrist rival after campaigning as anything but a moderate: she openly advocated for single-payer health care (her leading rival for the nomination did not) and believes like many activists that a forceful declaration of her progressive viewpoint is a political winner. Even in a party that has moved left, Porter’s embrace of a muscular liberalism stands out.
If her approach sounds reminiscent Elizabeth Warren, it should: The Democratic senator from Massachusetts was once Porter’s teacher at Harvard Law School, and Warren’s son even serves as the treasurer of Porter’s campaign.
“Katie Porter is one of the boldest and most progressive candidates for Congress in 2018,” said Warren, in a videotaped message for supporters that played at the Porter headquarters a few days before the primary.
To Green and Warren, Porter’s candidacy is an opportunity to prove their brand of progressive politics can succeed in battleground races — and quiet the skeptics in their own party.
The thing is, if they were excited that Porter won, so were Republicans. Exactly one week after Porter won her primary, in fact, Mimi Walters’ campaign released an ad explicitly criticizing her link to the “radical” Warren. The campaign paid for the ad to run on cable TV from then through August, an unusually aggressive move early in a race.
House GOP officials say they aren’t blind to the challenges Trump gives them in suburbs, forced to fight over an electorate that until recently was loyal to their party. But they know that if they can’t convince these voters that Trump is a man of strong moral character, they can at least convince them that, unlike Democrats, his (and the congressional GOP’s) agenda won’t cost them money.
“There’s a very simple economic argument in this race,” said Corry Bliss, president of Congressional Leadership Fund, a Super PAC with close ties to House GOP leadership. “If you like the gas tax, vote for Katie Porter. If you want to raise middle-class taxes, you should vote for Katie Porter.”
(Porter has aggressively pushed back on this line of criticism, coming out against a recently approved gas tax in the state and even running ads touting her opposition to it.)
Even local Democrats I spoke with in Orange County conceded the GOP argument will resonate. Most of them were excited about their area’s political change (Clinton won the 45th District by more than five percentage points) and readily acknowledged that cultural issues such as immigration and gun rights were now winning issues for the party here.
But they were still cautious about whether, in 2018, their friends and neighbors were quite ready to start voting for a Democrat for Congress, much less a liberal Democrat.
Burns, the local Democratic activist, said the electorate he knew in Orange County was “low tax, low tax, low tax.”
“They don’t want to even hear a whiff of a tax increase,” he said.
While Democratic strategists in Washington say they can convince voters that the congressional GOP agenda hurts voters’ bottom line, some concede that in a wealthy place such as Orange County, a strong economy bolsters the Republican message that Trump isn’t so bad afterall.
As Melissa Fox, a Democrat on the Irvine City Council, told me, Republicans here were horrified by the president. Then their 401(k)s went up.
“The sky hasn’t fallen,” she said. “The market is up.”
“He’s a disruptor,” the incumbent Republican Walters told me. “He’s not a conventional president.”
I was interviewing the congresswoman in her Capitol Hill office, asking what she thought about the man who would appear to be her biggest impediment to re-election. Many Republicans in tough races have taken pains to differentiate themselves from the president, either by working to bridge legislative compromise with Democrats (as Jeff Denham has tried on immigration) or even calling out Trump by name (as Will Hurd has in a New York Times’ op-ed).
That’s not Walters’ approach. She compared Trump to a new technology, saying that although voters weren’t sure what to make of him first, they’ve been pleasantly surprised since he took office.
“They didn’t vote for him,” she said, “but I think they are seeing that the results are exceeding their expectations”
If the election were re-run today, Walters said she thought Trump would win the 45h district.
When I asked what she disagreed with the president about, she cited his support for a gas tax to pay for infrastructure spending. When I asked about the Trump Administration’s now-rescinded policy to separate children and their parents at the border, she said it was a mistake but insisted that the same thing happened under President Obama.
Would she want Trump to campaign for her?
“If he wants to come out to Orange County, I would welcome him,” she said.
If the Democrats’ primary argument for winning the 45th District is Trump’s unpopularity, the secondary — and related — argument is Walters has done nothing to adapt to her constituents’ rapidly changing politics. She doesn’t just praise Trump rhetorically; she’s voted for every major GOP initiative since he took office, including on the potentially potent issue of health care and tax cuts.
Wave elections usually catch a handful of incumbents off guard, those members who don’t recognize until it’s too late that they are in a very different kind of election cycle than what they’re used to. Democrats plainly think Walters is such an incumbent this year.
“This notion that we’re still Nixon’s Orange County, Reagan’s Orange County, we are not,” said Beth Krom, the former Democratic mayor of Irvine. “This is a very moderate county. The extreme right-wing Republican constituency is dwindling and dying off by the year.”
Walters won 59 percent of the vote in 2016 against an underfunded Democratic challenger, topping Trump’s mark in the district by 15 points. In interviews, she and her staff point to this to argue that the results show voters differentiate between the congresswoman and Trump.
The primary in June, however, was a different story: Walters received just 51.7 percent of the total vote (California’s unusual top-two primary pits all candidates from both parties against one another).
Walters’ aides point out that Democrats spent millions of dollars turning out the vote for the primary, while their campaign spent nothing, and that the total Democratic vote still fell short of 47 percent. (A non-party-affiliated candidate received a few thousand votes.)
Democratic strategists think they know how to make up the few remaining points — and it’s all about reducing Walters’ potential edge on pocketbook issues. They will focus on one vote in particular, the congresswoman’s support for the GOP tax law that included a capped deduction on state and local income taxes (also known as SALT). It’s a provision that will cost voters in this wealthy district of a high-tax state.
“Our goal is to win on both of those things,” said Andrew Baumann, Porter’s pollster. “For voters to go into the voting booth and think, ‘Wow, Trump is really bad for this country and is not what I believe in as an American.’ And also, ‘That Mimi Walters has been bad for me and my family, and Katie Porter would be better.”
For her part, Walters dismisses talk that voters will care about Trump’s character.
“I don’t think they’re going to vote based on a person’s personality,” she said. “And he’s not on the ballot.”
When I asked her how a strong economy helps her campaign, her response was blunt.
“We win because of it,” she said.
Parsing which issues are more influential – the economy or social issues – isn’t easy. The conventional answer has long been that pocketbook issues are more important. But increasingly, as college-educated, wealthy voters move away from the GOP, cultural issues have sway.
And indeed, polling suggests the race is close: An August internal poll from the Porter campaign found her down by a single point. In response, a Walters aide said their own polling had Walters up more than that, but didn’t dispute that the race was close.
Many of the Republican voters I spoke with in Orange County had previously voted for Walters but were considering a vote for Porter in November. They were all horrified by Trump’s conduct, confused and angry that a man they consider obviously unfit for office was running the White House. And to a person, they expressed concern that their congresswoman had by and large gone along with Trump and his agenda.
Walters needs to hope most of these voters aren’t like Farnsworth.
Back at the Mexican restaurant, Farnsworth talked with me about his education (he has degrees from Ohio State and Berkeley), his career (he runs a tech company), and his longtime devotion to the GOP (he supported Mitt Romney in 2012).
The longer we talked, the more he sounded like a man who was probably going to vote for Porter despite her liberal positions. It’s not as if he is suddenly becoming a Democrat – Farnsworth said he voted a straight GOP ticket for state office on primary day – he just thinks Trump is a unique threat to the country.
“There’s a paycheck risk,” he said of Porter and Democrats. “But what we’re facing is a democracy risk. We have to take care of that first.”
“And then I’ll probably vote Republican again after that’s taken care of.”