You’d have been hard pressed just a few years ago to find anyone predicting that in 2020 Orange County’s solidly red 45th congressional district would be represented by a progressive Democrat whose incumbency is considered so safe that pundits aren’t even tracking the race anymore.
But that was before 2018, when UC Irvine law professor Katie Porter beat two-term incumbent Republican Mimi Walters to flip the district red for the first time. It was before Porter began taking corporate executives to school during congressional hearings. And it was before those encounters went viral and led to Porter hauling in millions in campaign donations, and being floated as a possible future candidate for president by fans who plan to dress up as the white-board-toting congresswoman for Halloween.
Her 2020 opponent, Greg Raths — a conservative Republican who defeated five other GOP challengers in the March primary to face Porter on the Nov. 3 ballot — is far from throwing in the towel. While Raths declined to be interviewed for this story, social media and campaign materials show the retired Marine colonel and current Mission Viejo councilman is campaigning hard to try to reclaim the seat for Republicans. And the repeat CA-45 candidate insists his brand of politics is a better fit for the central OC district that now leans red by just 3,000 voters, or 0.6%.
Porter becomes a name
Republicans held a bigger registration advantage in 2018, when Porter made her first turn into politics and pulled off a surprise win against Walters.
Porter, 46, grew up on a farm in Iowa in the house her great-grandfather built. As her parents navigated the farm crisis of the 1980s, with neighbors losing their farms and the local bank shut down, Porter said she remembers feeling scared about the future. So when she decided to pursue a law degree from Harvard, studying under future Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, it wasn’t surprising that she focused on bankruptcy and consumer protection law — always with an eye to what legal tools can help buffer everyday Americans from some of the harsher consequences of capitalism.
“When you have markets, they come up and down. But you still have to answer the question about how to help those people who get caught in a down get back on their feet.”
After practicing law and teaching in several different cities, Porter was recruited in 2011 by UC Irvine to teach at its new law school. She had two children and was pregnant with her third when she moved to Irvine. “It was clear that this was a very special place to raise kids,” she said.
Soon after the move, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris appointed Porter to be the state’s independent monitor of banks. She helped oversee mortgage industry reforms in the wake of the financial crisis — and started to gain a national profile.
In 2013, Porter divorced the father of her children. Amid a whisper campaign during her 2018 congressional run, Porter shared that her husband had been abusive. She now has full custody of their three school-aged children and, before the pandemic allowed for representatives to vote by proxy, was traveling home to Irvine from Washington, D.C. each weekend to volunteer with their Cub and Boy scout troops.
As a House member Porter has introduced legislation aimed at increasing consumer protection, boosting health care and lowering drug prices. Most recently, she introduced a bill that would help protect new moms from surprise medical bills and another that would require members of Congress and administration officials to report if they receive benefits such as loans or contracts with the federal government.
After pledging in her 2018 campaign to make political reform a top priority, Porter said she’s most proud of helping the House to pass H.R. 1, which she calls “the most comprehensive democracy and money in politics reform legislation since Watergate.” The bill included an amendment she introduced to make it easier for working parents to run for office. That bill stalled in the GOP-led Senate, and remains a top priority for Porter if she’s reelected.
While she’s been active on the legislative front, it’s videos of Porter grilling executives and Trump officials that have helped Porter pull in more in donations than any other Democrat in a competitive district. She raised $8.2 million and reported $6.8 million in cash as of the last filing period June 30, plus she’s drawn significant outside support from groups such as End Citizens United.
“She’s made me and my friends interested in congressional hearings,” said Tommy Nguyen, a 20-year-old from Irvine who goes to school at USC. “If you can get college students to watch hearings, you must be doing something right.”
Nguyen said he didn’t vote for Porter in 2018. He’s from a conservative family, so at 18, he voted for the conservative candidate. But as Nguyen has gotten to know more about politics and the world over the last two years, he said he’s become a big fan of Porter — particularly her focus on mental health services. This year, Nguyen is interning for Porter’s campaign.
Porter did miss a few House votes while stumping for Warren in the presidential primary. She’s now backing her other major mentor, Harris, on the ticket with Joe Biden, and she’s been discussed as a contender for a cabinet appointment if the pair win against President Donald Trump.
Raths bills himself as a fighter
Raths is a loyal Trump supporter, regularly retweeting the President and expressing support for his policies.
Raths refused an interview for this story or to help connect the Register with a campaign volunteer. He also previously declined to complete a written questionnaire about his positions and policy plans on key issues. When pressed about why, Raths said he wasn’t happy with the Register’s coverage of how he paid GOP figures such as Tomi Lahren to record video endorsements of his campaign through the web service Cameo. Raths said he was also unhappy with a story about his backing of a controversial Irvine start-up that promised to certify businesses as free of the coronavirus.
But according to biographies on his campaign and city council sites, Raths was born and raised in Phoenix. He joined the Marines while he was in college and was commissioned after his graduation in 1975. Raths was a first lieutenant in 1977 when he moved to Orange County, as he was assigned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro. During his career, he flew combat missions and commanded a fighter squadron aboard several ships. He also served three years as chief of staff and chief financial officer of The White House Military Office before retiring at the rank of colonel in 2004.
After military service, Raths moved back to Mission Viejo and worked as a commercial airline pilot with Jet Blue Airways. He later became president of an automobile parts distribution company.
Raths and his wife have three children and six grandchildren. He remains active in the local Rotary Club, Elks Lodge and other community organizations.
Raths entered politics when he was elected to Mission Viejo City Council in 2014, serving as mayor in 2019. He’s touted the city’s low crime rate and balanced budget during his campaign.
Raths also ran for the CA-45 seat in 2016, challenging GOP incumbent Walters. He failed to advance out of the primary, earning 19.2% of the vote to Walters’ 40.9%.
If elected this cycle, Raths’ campaign website states he’ll fight to permanently lower individual taxes, raise business deductions, end benefits for undocumented immigrants, and lower healthcare costs.
Raths has raised $751,558 and reported $334,919 in cash, a fraction of the cash held by Porter. That’s partly because he’s not receiving support from the state or national GOP, who are focusing funds on neighboring races that are viewed as more competitive.
Different campaign approaches
There are also sharp distinctions in how the two CA-45 candidates are running their campaigns.
Raths regularly criticizes Porter for everything from her policies to her Iowa roots to her fashion choices. He sometimes tussles with critics on social media, and temporarily deleted his Twitter account this summer after getting heat for blocking constituents.
Raths also is among a group of local GOP politicians who have been holding in-person campaign events for months, often without masks or social distancing rules enforced.
Porter, meanwhile, has focused on virtual town halls, phone banking and online outreach. And she hasn’t mentioned Raths by name, saying she thinks personal attacks reinforce the public’s ever-growing skepticism about the political process.
“I’m really focused on running a positive campaign telling the people of the 45th District what my priorities are,” Porter said, saying she’s proud to run on her first-term record.
“I want to not just win this election, but to earn the trust of every constituent that I can,” she continued. “You don’t do that by going after your opponent.”
The two are slated to participate in a Zoom webinar with the Mission Viejo Chamber of Commerce at 8 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 8. Voters can register to tune in through the chamber’s website.
Source: Orange County Register