Democrat Katie Porter, one of four Orange County Democrats trying to unseat a Republican incumbent in Congress in November, is barely ahead of Republican Congresswoman Mimi Walters in a poll of the 45th Congressional District completed by the New York Times Tuesday evening.

Porter received 48 percent compared to 43 percent for Walters, with 8 percent of voters in the district undecided. The margin of error is 5 percent.

Dave Gilliard, a campaign consultant for Walters, said the poll is not consistent with internal polling paid for by her campaign and conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, and “way over-estimates Democratic turnout.” Gilliard did not share specific numbers but said their poll shows “Walters with a lead among voters likely to turnout in 2018, within the margin of error.”

Porter’s campaign manager Erica Kwiatkowski said the campaign is “encouraged by the recent poll numbers.”

Orange County is a crucial battleground for Democrats in their effort to flip at least 24 seats in the 435-member House of Representatives. Nationally, Democrats are focusing on traditionally Republican-held districts like the 45th where the majority of voters supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016, 49.8 percent to 44.4.

The poll, conducted with Siena College and which surveyed 518 people, found 55 percent of respondents in the 45th district disapprove of Trump, compared with 41 percent who approve of his job performance.  A majority, 51 percent, said they want to see Democrats take control of the House compared to 43 percent for Republicans.

The latest job approval numbers by Real Clear Politics, which averages a number of polls, puts Trump’s national approval ratings at 43 percent, compared to 53 percent who disapprove.

The New York Times has conducted polls in two other Orange County districts, the 48th district represented by Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and 49th district represented by retiring Republican Rep. Darrell Issa.

The suburban 45th Congressional district is centered in Irvine and includes Tustin, Villa Park, Orange, Anaheim Hills, Laguna Hills, Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo and parts of Aliso Viejo and Laguna Niguel.

Mike Moodian, a political science professor at Chapman University who conducts the university’s annual countywide poll, noted Democrats came out ahead in two of the New York Times polls, although by small margins. Rohrabacher and his Democratic challenger Harley Rouda were tied, with 10 percent of voters undecided.

“As someone who has been following this for many years – every two years the Democrats have a legitimate shot, but we’d see weak candidates who are not well-funded, or who weren’t the strongest people for office,” Moodian said. “I think we’ll see Democrats flip a seat or two.”

Demographics Are Turning the 45th District Purple

Like the rest of the county, the 45th district is shifting from solid red to purple, Moodian said, a trend fueled by younger voters and a growing Asian and Latino electorate which favors Democrats.

Republicans make up the largest share of voters in the 45th, 37.3 percent compared to 30.3 percent for Democrats and 28.3 percent with no party preference, according to latest data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters.

Walters, 56, is a fairly new member of Congress – first elected in 2014, then re-elected in 2016 – but is known in Orange County as a longtime state assemblywoman and senator. A former investment banker, she began her political career after being appointed to the Laguna Niguel City Council in 1996, moving on to serve two terms in the State Assembly beginning in 2004 and then the Senate from 2008 to 2014.

Walters lives in Laguna Niguel, which is part of Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s 48th District, not the congressional district she represents, but members of Congress aren’t required to live in their districts.

Porter, 44, her Democratic challenger, is a consumer protection attorney and law professor at the University of California, Irvine. In a crowded field of primary candidates, Porter ran to the left of her opponents, touting endorsements from politicians like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. A more moderate candidate, one of Porter’s colleagues at UCI, Dave Min, was endorsed by the state party.

Walters has used Warren’s endorsement to paint Porter as a far left liberal, writing in a recent tweet that Porter is “not 100% Orange County, she is 100% San Francisco.” In interviews and ads, she’s called Porter a socialist cut from the same cloth as politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Moodian said despite Walters’ attacks, Porter is wearing the label of far-left progressive as “a badge of honor.”

“It’s showing you the varied demographics of the district. Not only is there a strong Republican base but there’s a significant progressive base as well,” he said. “The progressives will turn out and she will do well with the independents.”

Even if turnout for either party is strong, to win, both candidates likely will need some support from voters with no party preference.

Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California and former strategist for late U.S. Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid, said the political leanings of independent voters tends to be proportional to the share of Democrats or Republicans in that district.

“What sets an independent voter apart from a traditional Democrat or Republican is less a matter of centrism as it is a matter of alienation,” said Schnur. “They register as no party preference because they’re mad at politics and politicians. The question is, to what degree can Porter tap into that message?”

Porter has tried to cast Walters as an extension of Trump and “special interests,” pointing to the fact that most of Walters’ votes have aligned with the President. In a phone interview Sept. 21, Porter said her campaign has received support from moderate and Republican voters, and cited issues like access to health insurance and the Republican tax bill as crossing party lines.

The New York Times poll found 52 percent of respondents in the 45th district support the creation of a national health insurance program, compared to 41 percent who oppose, while 55 percent oppose the repeal of Obamacare compared to 41 percent who support it.

“Mimi Walters chose to raise taxes on California homeowners…and did so to curry favor with Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership,” said Porter. “It’s demonstrable evidence that Mimi is more concerned about her role in party leadership than she is on the economic well-being of Orange County families.”

Porter’s fundraising emails focus on Walters’ receipt of corporate political action committee (PAC) money, with calls to action like “Will you help us fight back against Paul Ryan and his PAC by chipping in to Katie’s campaign?” Rep. Paul Ryan is the Republican Speaker of the House.

Walters and retiring Republican Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton voted for the Republican tax overhaul bill, while the other two Republicans representing Orange County, Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa and retiring Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista, voted against it.

Schnur argues Walters is “better than most at distancing herself from the national party,” not calling out Trump specifically but maintaining a distance from Republican congressional leadership.

“She doesn’t necessarily criticize the GOP leadership all that much, but she maintains a distance…to the extent that she can protect herself,” Schnur said.

Walters said in an interview with CNBC earlier this month that she doesn’t always agree with Trump but “when I don’t [agree] with them I speak up.”

“So I am more interested in delivering the promises that I made to my constituents when I ran for Congress,” Walters said. “I think at the end of the day my constituents are going to look at the results and see that the economy is doing better. That they have jobs, that they have more money in their pocket.”

Although, like the rest of the state, Republicans are losing their edge in the 45th district, Walters won re-election in 2016 by nearly 17 points, 58.6 percent to 41.4 percent for her Democratic opponent, Ron Varasteh. The year she was first elected, 2014, she won by an even wider margin, 65 percent to 35 percent for Democrat Drew Leavens.

The district has also historically voted for Republicans in presidential and gubernatorial elections: the district voted for Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari over Democrat Jerry Brown by 17 percent in 2014 and voted for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over Democrat Barack Obama by 11.8 percent in 2012.

Election forecasting websites like Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report have both rated the race as a “toss-up.” Fivethirtyeight.com, the statistical political analysis website, has rated the race as “leaning Democrat.”

Gas Tax

Porter has broken ranks with most of the state’s Democratic Party by supporting the repeal of the state’s 12 cent-per-gallon gas tax, which was approved by the Legislature and governor in April 2017. The tax, which charges 20 cents per gallon for diesel and also increases vehicle fees, will raise $5.4 billion a year for road and transit projects.

“I can’t support higher taxes on Orange County families right now, especially given that Mimi Walters raised taxes…on middle class Orange County families,” Porter said. ”We obviously need infrastructure [improvements] in California and the region. This tax doesn’t do that for our community locally.”

Earlier this month, the nonpartisan website Politifact rated an ad by Porter, which repeated the claim that Walters “raised taxes on middle-class Californians” as mostly false, saying the bill raised taxes for some middle-class Californians but “won’t for many more.

Porter said Friday she’s specifically referring to the average homeowner in her district who will be affected by the bill.

Porter also said the majority of gas tax revenues coming to Orange County will go to areas outside of her district.

Gilliard said Walters has led the charge against the gas tax statewide.

“Porter has flip-flopped because she knows voters oppose the tax,” said Gilliard in an email. “[Walters] believes there is plenty of money in the state’s bloated budget to pay for road repairs and the tax increase is unfair to lower-income and middle-income families.”

Opponents of the gas tax this week unveiled a campaign to place a ballot initiative before voters in 2020 that would direct the governor to stop construction of a high-speed rail system in California, and require any unspent funds not needed for repaying rail bonds to instead go to other transportation work.

Republicans – who successfully funded the recall of former State Senator Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) in June based on his support of the gas tax – are hoping the issue will turn out more of their voters on Election Day.

An August poll by USC Dornsife/LA Times found the majority of California voters – 51 percent – want to repeal the gas tax.

Schnur says Porter’s decision to back the repeal of the gas tax was a “fairly smart political move” given her need to win over some conservative and independent voters.

Among Republicans, 61 percent favored repeal compared to 52 percent of independents and 39 percent of Democrats, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

“On the one hand, that probably helps with undecided voters in the center,” said Schnur. “She’s gambling that it doesn’t demotivate her base, because her base is probably a lot more motivated by Donald Trump than the gas tax.”

A December poll, also conducted by PPIC, found Republicans (85 percent) were far more likely than independents (46 percent) and Democrats (36 percent) to say the issue is very important to them.

Contact Thy Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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