Armed with a whiteboard and a penchant for grilling corporate executives during congressional hearings, Katie Porter quickly emerged as an apostle for Democrats in Orange County.
But despite spending millions on her campaign and having a national profile, she won reelection in 2022 by only a sliver. Now, with Porter running for Senate, two top Democrats — Sen. Dave Min and Joanna Weiss — have emerged to take on former GOP Assemblyman Scott Baugh in 2024.
For Democrats, both in Orange County and nationally, the stakes are high. The 47th Congressional District is among four Orange County-based districts that are expected to be among the nation’s most competitive in the 2024 election as Republicans and Democrats fight for control of the House.
“If Democrats can’t keep this seat, they have no hope of winning the House majority, because demographically this is exactly the type of district that is coming into the Democrats coalition,” said David Wasserman, a congressional forecaster for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
In Porter’s district, which includes a large swath of the Orange County coast and Irvine, Democrats have a slight voter registration advantage, but it’s close enough to be a prime target for Republicans in 2024.
Orange County’s transformation into a more culturally and economically diverse region has turned the place Ronald Reagan once said was where “good Republicans go before they die” into a political battleground.
In 2018, Democrats, including Porter, flipped four congressional districts in what they celebrated as a “blue wave.” Republicans won back two of those seats in 2020. The 2022 midterms were a stalemate.
“Neither Dave Min nor Joanna Weiss is the phenomenon of Katie Porter, not in their persona, and not in their ability to raise money. And so it’s going to take a lot of resources on the national chess board coming from the Democrats to make the seat competitive,” said Jon Fleischman, a former state GOP executive director and a political strategist.
For months, Democrats debated over which candidate has the best chance to finish in the top two in the March primary and beat Baugh in the November election.
Min’s supporters cite his appeal with Asian Americans, an impactful group of swing voters, his support from police unions and his legislative record supporting abortion rights, gun control and environmental protections — stands expected to draw Democrats to the polls.
Weiss has grown a large base of support from anti-Trump suburban women who argue she is the stronger candidate on progressive issues such as abortion and is focused on economic and environmental issues that are pivotal to Orange County voters. The support of both groups is expected to be key to keeping a Democrat in the seat.
Min argues that most female voters over the age of 30 who rank abortion as a top issue are already aligned with Democrats, noting “that is not a swing vote at this point.”
Both candidates have spent time — and money — appealing to Democrats by touting their progressive agendas. Min has raised about $1.2 million this cycle, while Weiss has $1.2 million including $225,000 that she lent her campaign. The candidates have roughly $825,000 and $832,000 cash on hand, respectively, according to campaign finance disclosure reports submitted in September.
Min, who has secured endorsements from the California Democratic Party and Porter, this month sent a mailer to voters, including independents, citing his record of protecting abortion rights, pushing for tougher gun laws and legislation he’s written in an effort to end offshore drilling.
“Those who know CA-47 best … have overwhelmingly endorsed Dave Min because of his track record of winning tough elections and standing up for the values of Orange County, including defending reproductive rights, advocating for tougher gun laws, working to end offshore oil drilling, and fighting to protect survivors of sex abuse and domestic violence,” Dan Driscoll, Min’s campaign manager, said in a statement to The Times.
Early this month, he dropped his first advertisement in the race, a six-figure video buy that will run on digital and cable platforms titled “United” and boasting the message that “California Democrats are united behind one candidate: Dave Min.”
Weiss, who founded Women for American Values and Ethics (WAVE), a fundraising and volunteer organization that aims to advance progressive candidates, has picked up endorsements from several California representatives including Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier) and Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), a close ally of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).
Weiss’ campaign has pounced on Min’s 2023 DUI arrest as a critical weakness that Baugh could exploit in the general election. Min was arrested last May and charged with misdemeanor driving under the influence after a California Highway Patrol officer witnessed him running a red light while driving a state-owned car just a few miles from the Capitol.
He apologized, saying he accepted “full responsibility” and that there was “no excuse” for his actions. Just hours after news of Min’s arrest broke, the California Republican Party distributed an email calling him “DUI Dave” and saying he had “put lives at risk when he made the reckless decision to drive drunk.”
Min’s arrest was enough to sway Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley. Foley, a Democrat, to endorse Weiss.
“There’s no reason to drive drunk. That’s a bad judgment call and that’s concerning,” she said. “This is going to get used by Republicans. They’re going to use it against him and he won’t be able to win the general.”
The fight took a tense turn on Thursday, when Weiss’ campaign released an ad criticizing Min for allegedly accepting money from special interests and for his DUI. The ad included dashcam footage from the police patrol car that showed Min swaying as the officer conducts a field sobriety test.
“It’s important that voters in our community understand their choice in this election. Dave Min cannot be trusted and he is a huge liability for Democrats in this must-win race to flip the House,” Weiss’ campaign manager Emma Weinert said.
Min responded by remarking on X, formerly Twitter, that “it’s so disappointing to see Joanna Weiss run such a negative campaign.”
Min’s camp argues that Weiss, a first-time candidate, doesn’t have the name recognition needed to win such a competitive seat.
Questions have also been raised about the source of money Weiss has used to support her campaign. An article published by the Daily Beast this month suggests funds Weiss has put into the campaign is income earned by her husband Jason Weiss, who specializes in labor and employment law at the firm Sheppard Mullin and has defended the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in sex abuse lawsuits.
Weiss called the story “a desperate attack.”
“I’m the No. 1 woman fundraiser in the country who isn’t an incumbent in the 2024 cycle,” she said. “I think the article unfairly attempted to highlight the purported self-funding, but we’ve had men completely self-fund their campaigns here in Orange County and no one asked them where their money came from.”
As Min and Weiss duke it out, Baugh has been reaching out to swing voters and amassing a $1.5-million war chest, according to campaign finance disclosures.
To Baugh, the current landscape seems much more favorable to Republicans than in 2022 when he went up against Porter, an incumbent who outspent him by millions. For now, Min and Weiss are spending their money fighting each other.
“Whoever emerges from the primary will be a little broken, a little bloodied up,” Baugh said.