ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — If Greg Raths loses his bid to become the next representative of California’s 45th Congressional district, he’ll do it on his feet.

As other campaigns have forgone door-knocking, the Republican has gone anyway, accepting the risks of contracting, or spreading, coronavirus. The fiscal hawk and social conservative believes those risks are minimal and follows some social distancing protocols, stepping away as the occupants come to greet him. He wears a mask, and when he hands out materials, he does so wearing a glove.  

That’s too much of a risk for his opponent, the incumbent Rep. Katie Porter, who has been able to raise more than $13 million, crushing Rath’s $1.2 million. 

“We have a ground game,” Porter said. “We just do it in a way that keeps people safe.” 

She’s waged her campaign by phone and over airwaves in an expensive media market. She even shelled out for ad time on Monday Night Football.

“I can’t compete with that,” Raths said. “We’re trying to use our ground game to make up for it.”

What You Need To Know

  • Republicans have a razor-thin edge in voter registration in the 45th congressional district

  • Twenty-five percent of the district, or more than 120,000 people, consists of unaffiliated voters

  • At 67, Raths is in the demographic at highest risk of complications from COVID-19 infection

  • Democrats hold all seven congressional districts with boundaries in Orange County

The former Mission Viejo mayor, at 67 years old, is in a high risk demographic. Still, he was the first local candidate to return to canvassing, leading the way for other Orange County Republicans.

Political campaigns across the country have scuttled plans to go door to door, returning the most potent campaigning tactic in politics to the toolbox. Campaigns, particularly ones run by Democrats, consider it unsafe. Even Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden avoided canvassing in key battleground states like Pennsylvania.

But as the election nears and President Donald Trump continues to hold rallies without social distancing, the freeze has thawed. Biden deployed his ground game to key districts in September in an effort to win a state the party lost in 2016.

Coronavirus has emerged in 2020 as a partisan issue as Trump openly feuds with the medical community. Democrats have used the division between Trump and his health advisers as a political cudgel complicating the use of ground campaigns for the party.

Raths has no such hangup. He hasn’t denied the science behind coronavirus, either.

But local observers say he has to catch up.

“I think because he’s not been involved in politics at really the local level, he got a little behind in fundraising,” said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County.

Raths outfought five other candidates to earn the Republican nomination, diluting his fundraising power from the jump. Whitaker said it cost him big coming out of the primary. Raths hasn’t received national party support, either. Republican math has already defined his race as a longshot with party money instead of going to congressional candidates Young Kim and Michelle Steel. 

Raths is trying to make up for it by knocking, he said, on 300 doors a day. Mostly, he said, there hasn’t been pushback. But he encountered slight resistance in the late summer and chose to suspend his canvassing until mid-September.

Multiple candidates and campaign volunteers across parties say the effectiveness of phone banks has dramatically improved. 

“Usually it’s about 2% response, like it was around the primary,” Raths said “But now it’s like 5% to 7% response.”

Bored Americans stuck at home have been a boon for delivery apps and have juiced the stock of streaming services like Netflix. But, evidently, many are still looking for a diversion. That has been to Raths’ benefit.

“It used to be people wouldn’t answer the door, but now a lot think it’s an Amazon delivery,” he said.

He’ll need to convince those who answer that his traditional Reagan values, once abundant in Orange County, are still worthy of office. Democrats laid siege in 2018, taking over all seven Orange County Congressional districts. A booming Latino voter base and Trump’s deep unpopularity in California have helped lead to deep Republican losses.

Raths is what the county, and the 45th district, have been used to voting for. A former squad commander of F/A 18 Super Hornets, Raths has military bonafides in the field and administration.

“I worked at the Pentagon and I know where a lot of waste is,” he said. “I can be a real hawk on defense spending.”

He is a pro-gun Republican who supports universal background checks and calls gun education “common sense.” But he said he wouldn’t push for legislation to force gun owners to take an education course. 

Raths is “an environmentalist, believe it or not,” favoring astroturf over grass and keeping solar panels on his house. But he does not favor the suspension of fracking, though he admits he’s not an expert.

“If there’s a real clear present danger to human life, then we need to know about it,” he said.

Among his stances, Raths is pro-life at a time when the landmark Roe v. Wade decision is a major talking point. Democrats have repeatedly grilled Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett on the subject.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it: I’ve always been pro-life,” Raths said. “I just think the unborn have a right to live.”

County Republicans believe these views have strong support in the district, which has robust party representation on all 10 city councils. Democrats have a registration advantage in the county, but Republicans hold a slight edge in the district. With the parties essentially deadlocked, the election may be decided by the more than 120,000 unaffiliated voters. 

Either way, Raths doesn't expect a blowout.

“I can’t work harder than I’ve worked,” he said. “Win or lose, I entered the arena, and I did my best.”