On Friday, a little more than a week after she launched the briefest of campaigns to head the NRCC, California GOP Rep. Mimi Walters conceded defeat to Democrat Katie Porter in the election for the state’s 45th Congressional District. Walters’ abortive bid to lead the GOP’s House campaign arm was the last, but far from the only, example of how little she understood how much electoral danger she was in—a danger that crescendoed after Election Day.
Walters may have been lured into a false sense of security because, until this year, she was accustomed to easily beating Democrats in Orange County, which since time immemorial had been the citadel of California conservatism. Walters was elected to the state legislature four times from 2004 to 2012 and never took less than 57 percent of the vote. Even in 2010, when she lost a statewide race for treasurer by a wide 56-36 margin, she carried Orange County 52-41. In 2014, Walters entered the race to succeed retiring GOP Rep. John Campbell in the 45th District, which had backed Mitt Romney 55-43 two years earlier at the same time that Campbell was defeating Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang 58-42. Democrats didn’t seriously contest the seat when Walters sought it, and predictably, she had no trouble winning.
It was a similar story in 2016 when Walters beat another little-known Democrat 59-41. However, that victory came as Walters’ seat, like Orange County as a whole, was rejecting Donald Trump. But even though Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic candidate for president to win Orange County since FDR—and in so doing carried the 45th District 50-44—Walters continued to act like she was still representing a solidly Republican seat. She most notably supported Trumpcare and voted for the GOP’s tax bill, even though suburban seats like hers stood to suffer from it.
With 2016’s impact on Orange County in mind, Democrats were determined that 2018 would be different. A number of Democrats, including Porter, jumped in to challenge Walters and raised credible sums of money. However, Walters just didn’t seem to understand that she was in for a tough fight. In March, when Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti asked Walters if her race was competitive, she replied with a simple “No,” insisting that Democrats “think just because Hillary Clinton won these districts that they can win.” Insisted Walters, “I don’t subscribe to that same idea. If you look at my race, I got 37,000 more votes than Donald Trump did.”
Walters continued to underestimate the depth of her predicament even after Porter emerged from the June top-two primary.
In August, Walters and an allied PAC donated $339,000 to the campaign pushing Proposition 6, a ballot measure to repeal a state gas tax that was passed to fund road improvements; Republicans hoped the repeal effort would help them in competitive contests. This decision to divert her own precious resources to another election would come back to haunt Walters at the end of her race.
The next month, Walters rather incredibly asked the NRCC not to spend money on her behalf. Her campaign blithely declared at the time that Walters “believes she will raise sufficient funds on her own to take care of her campaign’s needs.” NRCC chair Steve Stivers was happy to oblige, saying Walters was “another candidate who has asked me to not spend in her race. She says she’s got it. I feel confident she’s got it. She knows what she’s doing.”
The NRCC ended up spending just $362,000 during the final three weeks of the race, a very small amount for a competitive seat in the very expensive Los Angeles media market. Luckily for Walters, though, another GOP outside group didn’t listen to her. The Congressional Leadership Fund spent $1.27 million during the stretch run, compared to a total of $989,000 from Porter’s allies at the DCCC and House Majority PAC.
As Election Day approached, some Republican operatives, more in tune with the CLF than with the NRCC, became less than convinced that Walters had in fact “got it” and knew what she was doing. In mid-October, unnamed GOP strategists told the New York Times that there were “several” Republican House members in bad shape who “must recover quickly or risk losing funding,” and they specifically named Walters and Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam (who also ended up losing). Walters was never outright triaged, but it’s very possible that the NRCC decided to spend less on her than in other races because they, too, concluded she was in poor shape. Either that or Stivers still, inexplicably, felt confident about her chances.
Whatever the case, Walters could have very much used the help. After the election, the DCCC’s Drew Godinich said that in the final weeks of the campaign, Walters didn’t have enough money to pay for TV ads. And there’s where the gas tax repeal comes back in, because of course Walters would have been in better financial shape had she not thrown so much money at Prop 6. What’s more, the ballot measure didn’t turn out to be much of a help for Golden State Republicans, either. The repeal went down in flames, with the “no” (anti-repeal) side currently ahead 56-44 statewide, and while it’s up 55-45 in Orange County, it certainly didn’t save Walters.
And while the NRCC was only too happy to overestimate Walters, many Republicans badly underestimated Porter, who outraised Walters $3.76 million to $1.52 million from July 1 to Oct. 17. Walters and her allies seemed convinced that Porter, a former law student of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, could be easily portrayed as too liberal for Orange County. Indeed, in July, Walters launched an ad that declared, “Porter has called radical Elizabeth Warren a mentor and promises to raise taxes if elected.”
However, while Warren is utterly despised by the GOP chattering classes, it was never clear that voters in California’s 45th saw her as a liberal boogeyman, or even really had a firm impression of her at all. After the election, McClatchy’s Alex Roarty even relayed that, per an unnamed source in Porter’s campaign, polling showed Warren’s favorability in the seat was even higher than either Porter or Walter’s.
The GOP also believed that it could use Porter’s support for “Medicare-for-all” against her. Team Red ran the same kind of bogus campaign ads against Porter that it ran against Democrats everywhere, regardless of their actual positions on health care. Its spots claimed that Porter supported a “government takeover of health care” and wanted “to eliminate employer-provided health insurance.”
Porter wisely pushed back with an ad that used her own recent health scare to argue that everyone deserves quality care, telling the audience that that when her appendix burst on the campaign trail, “quality health care literally saved my life,” emphasizing that every family in Orange County deserved access to the same sort of care. At the same time, Porter went on the offensive and hit Walters for voting to “gut protections for pre-existing conditions and allow insurance companies to gouge seniors.” Ultimately, the GOP had no more success caricaturing Porter as a destructive radical than it did in pushing this line of attack in many other House races.
Still, Walters woke up the morning after the election thinking she’d won, with a 51.7-48.3 lead at that point. But as anyone who has watched California elections over the last decade could have told her, ballots counted after Election Day usually favor Democrats—and so they did again. However, this looming disaster didn’t stop Walters from immediately calling colleagues to campaign for the NRCC chair position.
That probably have been a bad idea even if Walters had narrowly won re-election, since she likely would have been in for another tough and expensive fight to defend her seat at the same time she was supposed to be focused on helping the GOP regain the House. It’s an even worse idea for someone who isn’t actually in the House.
And sure enough, the late ballots soon broke against Walters, who ended her NRCC bid on Sunday. Two days later, Porter took the lead, never to relinquish it. As her political career began to vanish before her eyes, Walters began to emulate the very man who helped instigate Orange County’s dramatic shift—Donald Trump himself—and alleged, without the slightest bit of evidence, that Democrats were trying to steal her election. Eventually, though, Walters gave up the charade. On Thursday evening, the Associated Press called the race for Porter, and Walters conceded the following morning. There is no word yet as to whether a staff position at the NRCC might open up for her.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.