As she heads into the heart of her first re-election campaign, Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine is quickly becoming a power broker in the House of Representatives.
She’s a Democrat in a flip district that still leans slightly red. But Porter is confident enough in her re-election chances that she’s announced the launch of her own “leadership PAC,” a political action committee that lets her raise and spend money separate from her own campaign fund, including for candidates other than herself.
These PACs have drawn criticism from ethics watchdogs and others over the years because they have fewer restrictions and less oversight than campaign funds. A majority of House Democrats and Republicans have them anyway, though many launch them quietly. And they’re less common among freshman members in potentially competitive races, such as Porter’s 45th District seat.
But through her leadership PAC, Porter can leverage her rising national profile and solid fundraising chops to help elect other progressive candidates who are facing tough races across the country. That, in turn, could mean more friends — and power — along the way.
“Porter is positioning herself to play a leading role in pushing the Democratic House caucus to the progressive left, putting more pressure on the Democratic establishment to heed their wishes to take seriously such issues as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal,” said Chris Burnett, who teaches journalism and American politics at Cal State Long Beach.
“She definitely is not the typical House freshman.”
Speaking Truth to Power
Porter — who beat Republican incumbent Mimi Walters two years ago to win central Orange County’s 45th District, where the GOP still has a 1.1 point advantage in voter registration — is calling her PAC Truth to Power.
She said it’s a nod to her trademark style of asking tough and often pointed questions of corporate executives and Trump administration officials during public committee hearings, creating moments that have gone viral on social media. One of the most famous exchanges came in March, when Porter got the CDC director to commit to covering coronavirus testing for uninsured Americans.
“That kind of calling out, demanding accountability, standing up to special interests and getting answers really resonates across the political spectrum,” Porter said.
Some voters, Porter added, have reached out to tell her that, even though they don’t agree with her politics, they appreciate that she’s holding people’s feet to the fire.
“When you’re willing to do what’s right and take risks, the American people respect that,” she said. She added that the goal of the new PAC is “to find other candidates that understand what the American people want.”
So far, Porter’s PAC has backed seven candidates who she feels meet that criteria. The list also reflects her commitment to help boost the ethnic, gender and experience diversity of congress. She hopes her support will help these candidates be able to speak their own truth more freely — even if they’re progressive candidates running in GOP districts, as she was.
Four Porter-backed candidates are progressive New Yorkers — Jamaal Bowman, Mondaire Jones, Ritchie Torres and Dana Balter. On Tuesday, June 23, all four won their primaries. “Right now, our track record is 100 percent,” Porter said.
Porter’s PAC also is backing Ammar Campa-Najjar, a Democrat running against Republican Darrell Issa in the 50th District, which covers south Riverside County and northeast San Diego. The seat was left vacant when Republican Duncan Hunter was convicted of misusing campaign funds and sentenced to 11 months in prison.
Truth to Power also is backing Democrats Kara Eastman, who is running against Republican Rep. Don Bacon in Nebraska, and Candace Valenzuela, who is trying to oust Rep. Kenny Marchant and flip his Texas district.
Porter said she expects to do another round of endorsements in early or mid-July.
Along with an endorsement, Porter is offering to use her growing social media presence (her campaign Twitter account has more than 245,000 followers) to promote candidates and tell voters how she thinks they’ll speak “truth to power.” She’s committing to mentor them, as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren so famously did for her. And, of course, she’s pledging to donate money to their campaigns.
Following the money
The PAC will be funded through donations from grassroots supporters, Porter said. There isn’t any declared fundraising or spending yet, and there isn’t a set fundraising goal or specific plan for dispersing the funds. But Porter’s team has lofty ambitions given the congresswoman’s track record.
In the current election cycle, Porter has raised more money for her campaign — separate from her PAC — than any other Democrat in a competitive district. She has more than $5.6 million to spend, plus significant outside support from groups such as End Citizens United. And that’s while sticking to an early commitment to not accept corporate PAC money.
Since leadership PACs have fewer restrictions and less oversight than campaign funds, critics say they open the door for candidates to use them as slush funds for things like personal travel or pricey meals. In fact, experts say the same expenses that got Hunter arrested because he linked them to his campaign fund might have been legally covered by a leadership PAC.
Leadership PAC money also can be used for donations and contributions that a candidate might not want to be linked to publicly. And leadership PACs also can let donors — and candidates — skirt contribution limits.
That’s why groups like the nonprofit Issue One, which supports greater regulation of money in politics, has called for banning or at least greatly restricting leadership PACs.
Porter’s campaign told the Register that she’s committed to not using her leadership PAC funds for personal expenses.
Leadership PACs were once less common, typically reserved for folks already in leadership positions in Congress or aggressively maneuvering to get there. But they’ve have become much more common among both parties in recent years. The watchdog group Open Secrets reports spending by such groups has risen steadily for 30 years, with Republicans spending millions more each year than Democrats.
Freshmen House members from Orange County, Reps. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, and Harley Rouda, D-Laguna Beach, also have leadership PACs.
Levin’s California Dream PAC has raised $64,001 from individuals since he launched it in January 2019, according to FEC records.
He’s spent $45,683 on expenses such as legal services and event tickets, including sponsoring a San Diego labor union event. Levin’s PAC has made $2,000 in donations to Democratic groups, including one that supports LGBTQ rights, and to Brynne Kennedy’s campaign against GOP Rep. Tom McClintock in Northern California. He’s also donated money for masks during the pandemic and to the San Diego Democratic Party.
Rouda’s Join Together PAC, which he launched just days after the 2019 session convened, has raised $11,000 from individual and union donors.
He’s spent half of that on operational expenses, including compliance consulting and software services. He then donated $1,000 to support Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty’s re-election. And he donated $3,000 to Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat who opposed abortion, Obamacare and same sex marriage — all stances out of line with Rouda’s stated platform.
Rouda’s PAC donated to Lipinski in May, two months after the Illinois Democrat had lost his primary election. Rouda’s campaign said Lipinski had “insurmountable campaign debt” due to “our broken campaign finance system,” so Rouda pitched in to help retire that debt. And they said Rouda “has a record of finding common ground to better the lives of Orange County families — even if that means working with members of Congress who don’t share his pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ values.”
Distraction or duty?
Porter said she believes everyone has an obligation to try to use their position to do the most good they can. She also brushed aside suggestions that her leadership PAC signals that she has larger political ambitions.
“I think anybody who is a member of congress should be trying to improve the way that congress does it job,” she said.
Porter said her PAC efforts will be in addition to the work she’ll continue to do to build support for her own race. And she dismissed any concerns that this venture will distract her from her work for the 45th District.
“To date, during this term, I’ve participated in over 20 town halls to hear directly from Orange County families and responded to over 100,000 messages from constituents. As the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing, I’ve also called constituents directly to hear their stories,” she said.
“I continue to be a voice for Orange County families, just as I always have, even as I work to build a grassroots movement to support candidates ready to put working families first.”
Source: Orange County Register