ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — When Katie Porter returned to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week, the beloved host greeted her warmly, like an old friend. The congresswoman’s ascent from insurgent unknown to fundraising powerhouse has positioned her as one of the party’s most dynamic rising stars.
The Orange County Democrat from California’s 45th congressional district has combined the furrowed-brow visage of a serious legal mind with the relatable qualities of a minivan-driving single mother. The recipe has vaulted her to heights of national name recognition uncommon to first-term U.S. representatives.
Her quick rise comes as the party is identifying new leaders and kicking the tires on old ones. Porter has expressed interest in U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) seat should her running mate, Joe Biden, become president. California’s other Senator, 87-year-old Dianne Feinstein, has recently lost some party confidence with her remarks on the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. And Nancy Pelosi, a noted fundraiser and Speaker of the House who struggled to retain her posting at last vote.
Porter has — with a lawyer’s quick wits and nimble tongue — dressed down rivals in congressional hearings with memorable quips that are equally at home in YouTube soundbites or tweets.
“You really only get to be on there if you’re saying something interesting in an interesting way,” said Tony Smith, a UC Irvine professor of political science and law. “The fact that she’s getting on those shows is really a recognition by the producers of those shows that people are going to want to see her.”
On her appearance with Colbert, the former teacher said hungover students from her classroom days prepared her for the likes of President Trump’s political allies.
But the conditions of her popularity have, in part, been made possible by the evolving constituency in Orange County.
Porter knocked Rep. Mimi Walters out of office in 2018 and has followed that effort with substantial fundraising efforts. The campaign’s last report, which came in June, showed that Porter had passed the $1 million mark five months in a row.
The fundraising success is one indication of the shifting demographics in Orange County, which have gradually moved in favor of Democrats.
“We politely call it in political science cohort replacement,” Smith said. “But to put it crudely, old people die off and young voters replace them.”
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by more than 40,000 in the county, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters.
Smith said whether Porter could become a party leader — or if she even wants to — remains an open question. But he said her campaign has grown in sophistication even as her competition has improved. Porter is up against Mission Viejo city councilman Greg Raths. A former Marine Corps fighter squadron commander, Raths brings experience as a former chief of staff and chief financial officer of the White House Military Office.
Porter has responded by collecting a huge war chest while enhancing important campaign devices like mailers. The former student of Elizabeth Warren, Smith said, has learned through observation and has run a campaign mature beyond her experience. Her performance has impressed local observers.
“We need someone pragmatic and thoughtful and hard hitting like she is,” said Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County.
Porter may have begun to exhibit qualities common to high-ranking politicians, but Smith said if she is interested in the highest offices of the party, she’ll likely have to wait her turn.
“Seniority matters a lot for these institutions,” Smith said. “But realistically every elected position from dog catcher to coroner looks in the mirror and says, ‘I can be president if the cards fall just right.’”