NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — In a rough year for Democrats, Republican Scott Baugh is trying to bring this Orange County swing district back to its GOP roots after it abandoned his party.
But he’s navigating a culturally changing region, now wary of a Republican Party transformed by Donald Trump, and a rising Democratic star in two-term Rep. Katie Porter, who, as one Republican operative lamented, “has more money than God.”
“I wouldn’t be running if I didn’t think it was winnable,” Baugh said in an interview at his campaign office in Newport Beach. “Yeah, we can return it.”
Baugh, a former O.C. GOP chair and state assemblyman, conceded that his fundraising deficit to Porter is “pretty daunting.” He told volunteers that it’s “going to be a low-turnout election and one of the challenges is: How do we get our voters out to the polls?”
California’s new 47th District sits at the nexus of cross-currents shaping the 2022 election. While economic pain and President Joe Biden's unpopularity threatens Democrats' hold on power, cultural issues like abortion, as well as Trump's enduring grip on the party, could put a ceiling on GOP prospects in the suburbs.
A Porter defeat would be a harbinger of a red wave. Conversely, a Republican failure here could indicate that voters who have left the GOP in well-educated and suburban districts aren’t coming back, limiting the party’s gains. The race is a top Republican target in the battle for House control, and Democrats’ campaign arm has listed Porter as a “front-liner” in defending their majority.
“Orange County is so often a bellwether for national politics. Is there going to be a path back for these right-of-center, moderate, wealthy, suburban voters, given how much the current Republican agenda has done to alienate them?” said Graeme Boushey, a professor of political science at the nearby University of California, Irvine. “I’m skeptical there is that path back. But we can never down-weight pocketbook issues.”
The Republican strategy is to make this and other Orange County races a referendum on an unpopular president and rising prices, but Porter argues her rival doesn't have a plan to combat rising gas and grocery prices, other than hurling “epithets.”
“Look, I live here. I’m raising my kids here. I drive my minivan around here, and I’m filling up those same gas tanks. I’m walking into those same grocery stores,” Porter told NBC News during an interview in Huntington Beach. “It’s a major problem, and we have to fight it on several fronts.”
The answer to rising costs, Porter said, is to pass the recent deal between Democrats empowering Medicare to negotiate drug prices, invest in U.S. manufacturing through the recent chips law and fight “price gouging, including by big oil companies.”
To lower prices, Baugh said, lawmakers should boost the supply of goods, “quit spending so much money” and balance the budget.
“You have to reform entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare, which have too many “unfunded liabilities,” he continued, and he said raising the retirement age should be “one of the tools you have to use” as part of a legislative compromise to cut safety net spending.
Asked about the key differences between him and Porter, Baugh said: “She’s voted on $20 trillion in spending. I wouldn’t have voted on all that spending.”
One economic issue that Porter and Baugh agree on is expanding the state and local tax deduction on federal returns, capped at $10,000 in the 2017 Republican tax law, which has hit blue states like California particularly hard.
A clash over ‘Orange County values’
Recently, Porter has voted with her party to codify federal protections for legal abortion in the Women’s Health Protection Act and same-sex marriage in the Respect for Marriage Act. She also voted for legislation that would ban assault weapons.
Baugh said he’d vote against all those bills if he were a congressman.
“Fundamentally I believe marriage is between a man and a woman,” he said. “I have no problem with social arrangements or social contracts and all that.”
On the abortion bill, Baugh said, “I would never support that. I believe life begins at conception.” He voiced support for federal limitations after the first trimester of pregnancy, citing laws in European countries.
Baugh expressed sympathy for red flag laws to address gun violence but not the other provisions Congress has considered, saying: “You’re not going to solve the gun violence issue in this country by taking away constitutional rights of law-abiding Americans.”
Porter defended her votes as reflective of the values of her districts.
“I think Orange County values things like freedom and respect for others. And that means leaving it up to individual people to make their own choice to love who they want to love, to make their own decision about when and if to start a family, including whether to have an abortion,” she said. “And we value safety.”
Baugh said he hasn’t paid attention to the House Jan. 6 committee's public hearings, dismissing them as “a bit of a sham show” that voters don't care about. But asked if he believes Biden was legitimately elected president, Baugh said: “I do.”
“He won the Electoral College, and the election was certified. That makes him the president of the United States. Does that mean it was a perfect election? No,” he continued, without saying whether he believes voter fraud contributed to the outcome: “I can’t know that.”
On the GOP objections to counting electoral votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona, Baugh wouldn’t say how he’d have voted on Jan. 6, 2021. “I’m not going to speculate on what I would have done. Had I been able to ask those questions and get those answers, I could give you a definitive answer,” he said. “But I don’t.”
'Heavy commuter districts'
Porter’s district borders three competitive Orange County-area districts, held by Democratic Rep. Mike Levin and Republican Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim. The Cook Political Report rates Porter’s and Levin’s races as “lean Democrat.” Steel's race is rated “lean Republican,” and Kim’s is “likely Republican” in redrawn maps.
“These are heavy commuter districts, and political fortunes in O.C. are highly dependent on the economy, especially gas prices. Railing against high taxes has been a winning formula for Republicans here,” said Dave Wasserman, Cook’s top expert on House races. “Of the cultural issues, abortion has the strongest potential to save suburban Democrats, including Porter and Levin.”
The outcomes of these races could come down to undecided voters, like Andrew Lewis, a hospitality worker in Newport Beach, who has “no idea” whether he’ll support Porter or Baugh.
He calls himself socially liberal and fiscally conservative. He feels pinched by rising prices. He favors abortion rights and tougher gun laws. But he’s not a fan of Biden — or the GOP.
“I’m more in the middle,” Lewis said. “I feel like both parties — I like some of the things.”
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Democratic campaign committee, said the Orange County races are a “choice” between “commonsense Democrats” and a Trump-aligned movement “that overturned Roe v. Wade, ignores school shootings and tries to whitewash the attack on the Capitol.”
“That’s a choice the Republicans are going to lose,” he said. “The MAGA Republican movement is out of step with suburban swing voters.”
And Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the chair of the GOP campaign arm, indicated in a statement that Republicans will continue to highlight economic pain.
“Californians are sick and tired of record inflation and paying the highest gas prices in the country,” Emmer said. “They know the only way to stop the madness is to vote Republican in November.”