So a few minutes ago I wrapped up an hour-long coffee chat with Laura Oatman here at the Starbucks in Laguna Niguel.
Laura, for those who might not know, is running for the 48th congressional seat. By the relatively meaningless crazydana.com rankings of likely Democrats to unseat the awful Dana Rohrabacher, she’s hanging a strong third, behind (but not all that far behind) Hans Keirstead and Harley Rouda.
Were I breaking it down (which I suppose I’m about to do), it’d go something like this:
• The only serious Democratic candidate who has lived her entire life in Southern California. If I’m Oatman, I milk that and milk that and milk that. It matters. It’s what representation is supposed to be about. This isn’t a gig for the person with the most dough. It’s a gig for the person with the most love and interest in his/her community. Harley isn’t from here. Hans isn’t from here. Laura is from here. This is her turf. She raised her kids here. Built a business here. She can make that pitch—convincingly.
• Self-made businesswoman who, after losing her architecture job during the economic downturn of the mid-2000s, started her own firm from scratch. Which she still runs. Generally speaking, people relate with the “self-made” designation. As they should.
• Extremely personable. And that’s not code for “She’s a woman” or “Only female candidate.” Laura has a natural warmth to her that shines in one-on-one conversation. It’s easy to see her owning a room. It’s easy to see her as a striking contrast to the ornery, awkward, somewhat-senile-and-odd Rohrabacher.
• Very strong on environmental issues.
• Seems willing to slug it out with Dana Rohrabacher, need be. This is a major weakness for Keirstead, who seems reserved and a bit guarded. Oatman projects a certain toughness. Not a “fuck you” toughness, but a “I don’t need to take your shit” toughness.
• Dough. Or lack thereof. Which doesn’t mean Laura hasn’t succeeded in raising campaign money. No—it means she’s not as independently wealthy as Keirstead or Rouda. And while it sucks that this is a factor, well, it’s a factor. Races that once cost $75,000-to-$100,000 to run now cost (bare minimum) $750,000-to-$1 million. Can Laura raise that? Certainly possible. But it does help to know certain folks already have it in pocket.
• Very strong on environmental issues: Weird, right? Because I just listed this as a pro. But here’s the thing—environmental issues are the ultimate double-edged sword. To win the 48th a candidate will have to (100% have to) steal Republican/right-leaning votes. And, generally, Republican voters focus on business before trees, air, water. So while one can be pro-environment, she/he also has to be pro-business and sound pro-business. There’s an awkward crossover there.
• Vegan: Laura is vegan. Which I applaud. And this might sound like a dumb criticism. But there’s an imagery Democrats have to overcome, especially in right-leaning areas. And it’s the whole granola, “Free to be You and Me,” let’s-all-hold-hands-and-hug mojo that (stupidly) causes some Republicans to say, “Uhg, enough with this touchy-feely shit.” I’m not sure if I’m being clear here, but it’s true. What Dana Rohrabacher does well is speak plainly, boldly, Republican-ly. “We need to stop immigrants! We need to build up the military! Force! Bluster! Bluster! Force!” It’s maddening, but the simplicity of message and tone resonates. So … there’s a line to walk.
My conclusion: Right now, Laura Oatman is the Ross Perot (circa 1992) of the Democratic field. Would I bet my house on her win? No. Would I feel comfortable betting my house that she doesn’t win? Also no.
She’s a potentially strong candidate whose local ties stand out. She has yet to break through.
But I think she might.