A wave of po­lit­i­cal out­siders

First-time can­di­dates set sights on Congress, and many say it’s be­cause of Trump.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Chris­tine Mai-Duc

Not too long ago, Katie Hill’s week­ends were filled with hikes and rock climb­ing. Now that she’s de­cided to chal­lenge GOP Rep. Steve Knight for his Palm­dale House seat, she spends them go­ing to meet-and­greet events and mak­ing hours of fundrais­ing phone calls.

When she fi­nally took a break for din­ner and a movie with her hus­band, a voter rec­og­nized her from Face­book videos re­leased by her cam­paign and be­gan pep­per­ing her with pol­icy ques­tions.

“There I am, hold­ing a beer in front of a cooler in a sun­dress,” said the 29-yearold Hill in a phone in­ter­view be­tween meet­ings at PATH, the Los An­ge­les non­profit for home­less­ness where she’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “I re­al­ized then that, ‘Oh, you’re not ever go­ing to be off any­more.’ ”

This is Hill’s first time run­ning for of­fice — she’s one of more than two dozen can­di­dates who have never run for of­fice be­fore but have an­nounced runs in Cal­i­for­nia’s 13 most com­pet­i­tive con­gres­sional races.

Many of them say the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, a first-time can­di­date who rode his rep­u­ta­tion as a po­lit­i­cal out­sider to the high­est of­fice in the na­tion, spurred them to run.

Most are con­cen­trated in Or­ange County, where four of Cal­i­for­nia’s seven most vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­can House mem­bers are based. But new­com­ers to pol­i­tics are pop­ping up on both sides of the aisle. The 2018 ros­ter in­cludes sci­en­tists, busi­ness­men, doc­tors, vet­er­ans and at least one lot­tery win­ner.

“Out­sider can­di­dates, their stock is def­i­nitely ris­ing,” said Jack Pan­dol, a spokesman for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Cam­paign Com­mit­tee. “Folks seem to want a fresh per­spec­tive in gov­ern­ment, and that means peo­ple with busi­ness back­grounds or vet­er­ans.”

Though Pan­dol says there are first-time can­di­dates Repub­li­cans are “ex-

cited about,” the vast ma­jor­ity of new chal­lengers in the most com­pet­i­tive seats next year are Democrats.

“You have a lot of out­siders putting to­gether re­ally vi­able cam­paigns in a lot of th­ese dis­tricts where they’ve never seen that from Democrats,” said An­drew Go­dinich, a spokesman for the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

The group is set­ting up an Or­ange County of­fice to help with Cal­i­for­nia races but has not en­dorsed any of the Democrats look­ing to oust the nine Repub­li­cans it’s iden­ti­fied as pri­or­i­ties. That’s be­cause the pri­mary elec­tion, in which the top two vote-get­ters will ad­vance re­gard­less of party af­fil­i­a­tion, is still al­most a year away, and there are mul­ti­ple vi­able prospects in most dis­tricts.

That’s true in the race against Rep. Ed Royce (RFuller­ton), who faces five chal­lengers, most of them Democrats, all of them first­time can­di­dates.

Mai Khanh Tran, 52, a pe­di­a­tri­cian who re­cently moved to Yorba Linda, is one of them and said the de­ci­sion to run was “ag­o­niz­ing.”

“I am leav­ing a very nice, pri­vate life that I’ve worked very hard to build and to be at a po­si­tion where I can now take it easy and en­joy my fam­ily,” said Tran, a Viet­namese refugee who came to the U.S. as a child, worked as a jan­i­tor to put her­self through Har­vard Univer­sity and is a two-time breast can­cer sur­vivor. “It’s go­ing to be a year and a half of work that’s not in my com­fort zone.”

In her first two months on the cam­paign trail, she’s raised more than $270,000 and scored an en­dorse­ment from abor­tion rights group Emily’s List.

At first, Tran said, she felt over­whelmed by the con­stant pres­sure to raise funds and prove she had enough sup­port to con­tinue, at one point break­ing down in tears at the desk she set up in her garage.

Wit­ness­ing Trump’s elec­tion, and every Repub­li­can House mem­ber from Cal­i­for­nia vot­ing to re­peal Oba­macare, kept her go­ing. “I see it on a daily ba­sis, the lives that are im­pacted,” said Tran, who works in a pri­vate prac­tice. “I just don’t feel like their needs are be­ing heard by the peo­ple who are mak­ing de­ci­sions that af­fect their lives so dras­ti­cally.”

Katie Porter, a law pro­fes­sor at UC Irvine, sees the stakes the same way. Con­fi­dent that a Trump pres­i­dency would fa­vor spe­cial in­ter­ests, es­pe­cially the big banks, the 43-year-old Porter de­cided to chal­lenge Rep. Mimi Wal­ters (RIrvine) just two days af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion.

A long­time con­sumer ad­vo­cate who was tapped by then-Atty. Gen. Ka­mala Har­ris to over­see Cal­i­for­nia’s share of the na­tional mort­gage fore­clo­sure set­tle­ment, Porter said she sees pub­lic of­fice as a log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of the work she’s al­ways done. She has been en­dorsed by Emily’s List, Har­ris and Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren (D-Mass.).

Porter is one of six Democrats hop­ing to make it into a runoff against Wal­ters. An­other is a 37-year-old for­mer Obama ad­vi­sor who teaches at MIT. There’s also an ac­tor and a a fel­low law pro­fes­sor at UC Irvine. None of them have been elected to lo­cal or state of­fices, the kind of re­sume once ex­pected of se­ri­ous con­gres­sional can­di­dates.

“Peo­ple are tired of see­ing the same for­mu­laic can­di­dates,” said the DCCC’s Go­dinich. He says the party has pro­vided ba­sic help for the flood of new­bies in Cal­i­for­nia, rang­ing from cam­paign bud­get tu­to­ri­als to ad­vice on hir­ing staff. Other groups, such as 314 Ac­tion, which is seek­ing to elect sci­en­tists, and Emily’s List have pro­vided sim­i­lar re­sources to new­com­ers.

Run for Some­thing, a group fo­cused on re­cruit­ing pro­gres­sive mil­len­ni­als to run for lo­cal of­fices, says it has got­ten in­quiries from more than 10,000 hope­fuls but takes a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to po­ten­tial can­di­dates who come to their doorstep.

“We pretty ac­tively en­cour­age peo­ple, if they’re think­ing about run­ning for Congress, to re­assess that de­ci­sion,” said Amanda Lit­man, the group’s co-founder. “For a first-time can­di­date, it’s re­ally hard, it re­quires a lot of money and usu­ally the prob­lem that’s in­spir­ing you to run can be solved at the lo­cal level in a much more mean­ing­ful way.”

Dave Gil­liard, a Repub­li­can con­sul­tant who is work­ing for five of the most vul­ner­a­ble Repub­li­can in­cum­bents, said the new­found en­thu­si­asm from in­ex­pe­ri­enced can­di­dates is based on some “false as­sump­tions.”

“I think a lot of them have been led down a prim­rose path about how easy it’s go­ing to be to be elected to Congress in th­ese dis­tricts,” said Gil­liard, who is ad­vis­ing the Wal­ters and Royce cam­paigns.

Gil­liard said Hil­lary Clin­ton’s pres­i­den­tial suc­cess in the most tar­geted dis­tricts doesn’t mean Democrats will eas­ily flip seats in the midterm elec­tions, when vot­ers tend to be older and more con­ser­va­tive. He called the Democrats’ at­tempt to at­tack Repub­li­can mem­bers for their votes on the healthcare law in­ef­fec­tive — and one that vot­ers won’t re­mem­ber 11 months from now.

“The great thing about con­gress­men like Ed Royce … is that they are well-known and well-liked at home as fight­ers in their dis­tricts,” said Pan­dol of the NRCC. “Th­ese guys are run­ning on their records and their ac­com­plish­ments, and we think that’s a win­ning strat­egy.”

Hill, who is chal­leng­ing the two-term in­cum­bent Knight, said she has no il­lu­sions. “This is go­ing to be the hard­est thing ever. This is a seat that’s been held by a Repub­li­can for 30 years,” she said. “You can’t act like this is go­ing to be easy just be­cause Don­ald Trump is pres­i­dent.”

But Trump’s elec­tion did make it easy for her to jump in, Hill said. While she was in the midst of help­ing pass Mea­sure H, the L.A. County sales tax mea­sure to raise money for home­less­ness ini­tia­tives, Hill said, she re­al­ized all of her work could be erased if fed­eral agen­cies un­der Trump didn’t co­op­er­ate.

Trump hasn’t just in­spired Democrats.

Stelian Onufrei, a Repub­li­can busi­ness­man from Hunt­ing­ton Beach, is run­ning for the first time against a mem­ber of his own party: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), who has held the seat for 28 years.

Onufrei said he’s been con­tem­plat­ing run­ning for nearly 20 years but was con­vinced he should forge ahead af­ter see­ing the anti­estab­lish­ment fer­vor that seemed to sweep Trump into of­fice.

“It’s this frus­tra­tion with the fact that noth­ing gets done,” said Onufrei, who called Rohrabacher an “en­trenched ca­reer politi­cian” and a “po­lit­i­cal light­ning rod” in an in­au­gu­ral cam­paign state­ment. “Ba­si­cally, they’re get­ting in the of­fice and for­get­ting what they’re there for; they’re for­get­ting where they started and their whole jour­ney.”

Katie Hill for Congress

KATIE HILL is chal­leng­ing Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palm­dale).

MAI KHANH TRAN, left, is one of five chal­lengers to Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fuller­ton). Katie Porter is hop­ing to un­seat Rep. Mimi Wal­ters (R-Irvine).

Pho­to­graphs by Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

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