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-and-greet 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-year-old 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.”
While Pandol says there are first-time candidates Republicans are “excited about,” including businessman Andrew Grant who is challenging Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove) and attorney Omar Qadrat taking on Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), 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 (R-Fullerton), who faces five challengers, most of them Democrats, all of them first-time 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 (R-Irvine) 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 résumé 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, co-founder of the group. “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 anti-establishment 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.”
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4:06 p.m.: This story was updated with more details about some Republican candidates.
This story was originally published at 12:05 a.m.