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Candidates in critical California district face off on Trump, taxes and the Russia investigation

John Harwood
CNBC
  • Nearly every cross-current of the 2018 campaign for Congress collides in California's 45th House district.

  • In a year of surging political activism by women, voters will choose between two female candidates: Republican incumbent Mimi Walters, a former investment executive, and Democratic challenger Katie Porter, a law professor and protege of liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren.

  • Each has raised more than $2-million for a fight the Cook Political Report rates a tossup.

IRVINE, CA - Nearly every cross-current of the 2018 campaign for Congress collides in California's 45th House district.

The district sits in historically-conservative Orange County, ancestral bedrock of Reagan-esque conservatism. But growing Asian and Latino communities have swelled the non-white share of the population to nearly half. In 2016, Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate in 80 years to lose Orange County.

The district brims with the sorts of highly educated suburban voters who have been repelled by Trump's conduct across the country. Its median income of more than $90,000 ranks among the nation's highest. The economy is booming.

Orange County retains its traditional aversion to tax increases. The Trump tax cuts offered a mixed blessing, reducing rates but also curbing valuable deductions for state and local taxes.

In a year of surging political activism by women, voters will choose between two female candidates: Republican incumbent Mimi Walters, a former investment executive, and Democratic challenger Katie Porter, a law professor and protege of liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren. Each has raised more than $2-million for a fight the Cook Political Report rates a tossup.

It's among ten California contests critical to the Democrats' hopes of gaining the 23 seats they need for control of the House. Former President Barack Obama will stump in Orange County on Saturday to rally support for Porter and several other Southern California Democratic hopefuls.

I sat down this week with both candidates - Walters in Washington, Porter in Irvine - to discuss major themes of the races. What follows are condensed excerpts of the conversations.

ON THEIR CONTRAST IN PHILOSOPHIES

WALTERS : I come from a conservative district and my opponent identifies herself with many of the liberal policies of Elizabeth Warren. She is an Elizabeth Warren protégé. She was a law student of hers at Harvard.

She is on the same page with Elizabeth Warren as far as wanting universal healthcare. She identifies with Elizabeth Warren as wanting to abolish ICE, open borders. And these are just policies that will not sit well in the district. Universal healthcare is not popular in the district at all.

PORTER : I spent my whole career fighting for families to have a fair shot in the economy, and standing up for them when they when they were cheated by big banks or by predatory lenders. So I think it's really important to be a champion for a fair economy, an economy that works for all, that gives small business a level playing field against the largest corporations, and an economy that creates opportunity for every American.

What we've seen under Mimi Walters is just the opposite. Raising taxes on middle class Orange County families, right here in her own district, not doing anything to address the rising cost of college, the pressures of paying for childcare, and voting to destabilize our health care system by voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act with no plan to protect those with preexisting conditions.

ON EFFECTS OF TRUMP'S ECONOMIC POLICIES

WALTERS : Well I think you have to look at the times that I'm in the district. I just came back. I was there for five weeks. And talking to my constituents about the tax reform package. It's very popular. I have people coming up to me and thanking me for supporting the tax reform package.

We see growth over the last four quarters. People have their 401(k)s more valuable than they were. We have the stock market at all-time highs. I was talking with some business owners, small business owners, and they were telling me that the biggest challenge they have right now is finding labor. And so now we have a labor shortage. These are good problems to have.

But I think the tax reform package overall has had a very, very positive effect on my district. We may have a few (paying more). But 90 percent of Americans are going to see a benefit. And remember, many people who are in the, let's say $200,000-$500,000 range, they had the alternative minimum tax. We've done away with it.

You're looking at a $2000 tax credit for children now, You're doubling the first $12,000 of a person's income, it's now going to be tax-free. So I believe that the low income people will definitely see a positive effectiveness. Middle class as well.

PORTER : There are three other Republicans in Orange County in Congress, and they all voted "No" on Trump's tax plan because they knew it punished California families and was going to create a financial shock at people's pocketbooks in April 2019. Families here are worried about that. They don't have the resources to pay $8,000 or $9,000 or 10,000 more in taxes.

This is a really powerful contrast between Mimi Walters and me. She's concerning herself with people at the very top of the income bracket, people making half a million dollars a year, people making a million dollars a year, people who are living off the stock market.

I'm concerning myself with working, middle class families here in Orange County who go to work every day, who are trying to put money into their 401k, but it's hard to find that money when they're trying to pay for child care, living in a high cost of living area, trying to save up to buy a house in an area where housing affordability is a crisis.

WHAT A DEMOCRATIC CONGRESS WOULD BRING

WALTERS : Well I think you're going to see this country move more toward socialism under Nancy Pelosi. Now Nancy Pelosi does a very good job of representing her people in San Francisco. But they simply are not on the same page as the constituents of my district in the 45th district. It's a much more conservative district.

Universal healthcare, single-payer, opening the borders, not protecting the people who come into this country, (not) making sure that we don't have terrorists come into this country to hurt our citizens. You know government's number one job is to make sure that we protect people who are here. We have to have border enforcement and strong borders.

PORTER : When the Democrats take control in 2019, the American people are going to be looking to us to be a check on some of Trump's reckless impulses, to provide stability and calm, and to go to work in a serious way on the most pressing issues facing Americans. We have the student loan crisis facing a generation of students and their parents in this country. We have concerns about globalism and competing in the world economy and having fair trade deals. We have to do something about climate change.

I teach business law. We need to have rules of the road that make capitalism functional, that make it work. This is about making sure that we're creating opportunity for families, that we're balancing what businesses want to do for a profit motive with making sure that we have opportunity.

Every country needs to have border control. But what we've seen under Trump is ripping parents apart from children, and Mimi Walters has failed to speak up forcefully against that.

We need to be strengthening our health care system, not weakening it for the benefit of big pharmaceutical companies and powerful health insurance companies. I support Medicare for all because I think it's going to deliver the best quality and affordable care that we can get in this country.

WHETHER TRUMP IS DANGEROUS AND HOW CONGRESS SHOULD REACT

WALTERS : No I do not believe that. I think he has a very good team around him. I believe he's doing what he thinks is right.

I think the Mueller investigation is important and it needs to play out. Hopefully it will get wrapped up soon. And I think that's why we have special prosecutors, to look into these kind of things to make sure that nobody meddles in our elections. Putin is not our friend. So we need to be mindful and let it play out.

I can't be held responsible for his actions. I can only be held responsible for my own actions. The one thing about this president, he certainly communicates with the people of this country and lets them know what he thinks.

There's processes in place to make sure that if there is corruption, then it will play itself out. But what I'm focused on making sure that I deliver my promises to my constituents. I made a commitment to help move this country in the right direction and I'm focused on those policies that will make sure that we will do just that.

I don't always agree with our president. For instance, I don't agree with the tariffs. And 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.

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.

PORTER : I think that some of Trump's actions represent a real threat to our democracy. We need to support the special investigation and his independence and allow him to find facts. The American people deserve the truth. They need to know what happened, and whether Trump or others around him have committed crimes.

Part of Congress's job is to be a check on the presidency. If you're not asking the right questions, if you're not looking at the evidence of the corruption, you won't see it even when its there. That's where we have a real danger in what Mimi Walters is doing. She is refusing to stand up for the people of Orange County and refusing to see the corruption that's right in front of her.

ON RISING TRUMP-ERA ACTIVISM AMONG WOMEN

WALTERS : I'm focused on legislation that serves my constituents. And I'll give you an example. Last year the city of Irvine, there was a sex trafficking ring that was uncovered. And when we learned that prosecutors didn't have the tools to go after the perpetrators, we have signed into law - and I was very instrumental in writing the legislation - that has comprehensive human sex trafficking reform. We also give those survivors of human sex trafficking recourse, which they never had before.

At the end of the day the voters will see what I've done, and what I delivered, and that's going to outweigh any of that noise you hear out there. We are doing what we promised the American people we would do. We're putting policies forward, and people feel better about themselves, and they feel better about their future and their children's future.

PORTER : Women here in Orange County, like women across America, have a whole host of concerns. They are not just concerned about issues designated to be women's issues.

They are going to be sitting down with their partners to try to figure out how to pay the thousands of additional taxes that Trump put on to them. Women have pre-existing conditions. Women breathe the air here and see our beaches here.

Women are concerned about safety and our schools. I don't think it's going to be enough to attract women voters to simply point to a single bill and say that makes you a champion for women and for working families.





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