WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, the feisty congresswoman from Orange County, California, is running for Senate. But does anyone north of the Los Angeles area know who she is? Does she have a chance?
And will the incumbent, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, run again?
Porter, 49, last week became the first Democrat to formally enter the race. Feinstein, who will be 91 on Election Day 2024, has had memory problems and decided not to become Senate President Pro Tem, which would have put her third in line for the presidency.
She said after Porter’s entry into the race, “I will make an announcement concerning my plans for 2024 at the appropriate time.”
Right now it’s impossible to know what that could be.
“The early phase of the Senate campaign is about building credibility and momentum. Porter and the other candidates will need to become better known beyond the MSNBC audience and progressive Twitter,” said veteran California Democratic consultant Rose Kapolczynski.
After talking to analysts and consultants here’s how Porter’s current prospects look.
Why Porter can win
- She wins tough races. Porter’s 45th Congressional District is a swing district that’s a frequent Republican target. Porter was elected to Congress in 2018 by defeating two-term incumbent Mimi Walters, the first time since the district was created in 1953 that a Democrat won.
Last year, Porter was one of the GOP’s big targets, but she beat Republican Scott Baugh with 51% of the vote.
- She can raise a lot of money. Porter raised $25.4 million for her 2022 House campaign, the second biggest haul of any House candidate, behind only current Speaker Kevin McCarthy. She wound up with $7.7 million that she can use for a Senate campaign.
Last week, Porter raised $1.38 million online in the 24 hours after her Jan. 10 announcement. She took no corporate or political action committee money and has not taken any throughout her career.
- She has a political brand. Porter is known for her whiteboard, which she has routinely used during congressional hearings to make her points easy to understand.
Porter is known for her tough grilling of corporate and administration officials. She was a consumer protection attorney before coming to Congress.
“She’s spent her life and career taking on powerful interests and protecting families,” Porter spokesman Nathan Click said.
Porter was a student of Elizabeth Warren’s at Harvard Law School, and the two have worked together on consumer protection issues. Warren, now a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, endorsed Porter for the Senate last week.
- She can benefit from a multi-candidate field in a primary. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents the 12th District, is expected to run. Rep. Ro Khanna of the 17th District is said to be considering the race. Feinstein is the former mayor of San Francisco.
While Rep. Adam Schiff, of the 30th District, is also in the mix, Porter could benefit from her Orange County base, since the county is a high-turnout area — often higher than some other Southern California areas. Meanwhile, Lee, Khanna and perhaps Feinstein may end up dividing the Northern California vote.
“If Ro Khanna runs you have two people in the Bay area. Then it’s anybody’s guess who might win,” said Christian Grose, academic director of the University of Southern California’s Schwarzenegger Institute.
Why Porter will have trouble
- She’s from Southern California. The north tends to have a higher turnout for Democrats. “That gives candidates from northern California an advantage,” said Grose.
Candidates from the northern part of the state have dominated top statewide races for years.
The north has had dominated statewide races for years.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, like Feinstein, is a former San Francisco mayor. Vice President Kamala Harris, elected to the Senate in 2016, is an Oakland native, and she succeeded Sen. Barbara Boxer, whose political roots are in Marin County. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., is from Los Angeles, but had the advantage of being appointed by Newsom to fill Harris’ seat so he could run last year as an incumbent.
But Click noted that Porter appears to understand that she must win support in Northern California. Porter’s first event as a Senate candidate was in Walnut Creek, in the Bay area. The Tuesday rally drew more than 300 people.
- She has a smaller base of support than others. “I doubt most people have ever heard of her, “ said Wesley Hussey, professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento.
Lee, on the other hand, is well-known in political circles.
She was chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She got national attention three days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when she was the only member of Congress to vote against giving President George W. Bush broad authority to use military force against Afghanistan.
- She needs to appeal to minority voters. Lee has a strong reputation in the Black community. “I believe what takes a candidate over the top is appeal to the base, and that’s people of color, particularly women of color,” said Aimee Allison, president and founder of She The People, an Oakland-based network of women of color.
Click, though, cited a statewide poll commissioned by the Porter campaign that showed Porter leading a potential Democratic primary field with 30%. Schiff was at 29%. Lee had 9% and Khanna had 6%. In a top-two runoff, Porter is ahead of Schiff by 11 percentage points..
- She may not win over the liberals. Khanna has become a liberal hero and is being urged by many supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to run for president. Lee has co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Lee, Khanna and Schiff all got 100% ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action in 2021, the latest information available. Porter got 90% in 2020 and 2021, and 85% in 2019, which still puts her squarely in the liberal camp.
Click pointed out that Porter is a member of the progressive caucus, and was quickly endorsed by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a leading liberal group, for Senate.
Still, breaking out of the field will be tough. “With three progressive members of Congress likely to be competing in the primary, it will be challenging to develop a crisp message and stand out from the field,” Kapolczynski said.