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Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., waves at supporters at an election night party for her Senate bid on March 5, 2024, in Long Beach, Calif. (AP) Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., waves at supporters at an election night party for her Senate bid on March 5, 2024, in Long Beach, Calif. (AP)

Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., waves at supporters at an election night party for her Senate bid on March 5, 2024, in Long Beach, Calif. (AP)

Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek March 7, 2024
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 7, 2024

Fact-checking Rep. Katie Porter’s claims that billionaires ‘rigged’ California’s Senate primary

If Your Time is short

  • Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., blamed her loss in California’s Senate primary on billionaires who she said "rigged" the election, citing funding of attack ads against her that she called "manipulated by dishonest means." 

  • Spending unlimited amounts of money on ads in this way is legal, as long as the spenders do not coordinate with candidates.

  • Experts said in American politics, money is a necessary component of a winning campaign but not all-encompassing. In 2022, eight of the 10 candidates with the most self-funding in congressional races lost.

  • How does PolitiFact decide our ratings? Learn more here.

After losing her California Senate bid on March 5, Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat, used language reminiscent of election denialism to cry foul. 

Thanking her supporters in a March 6 X post, Porter wrote: "Because of you, we had the establishment running scared — withstanding 3 to 1 in TV spending and an onslaught of billionaires spending millions to rig this election."

Facing criticism of her use of the term "rig" — including from Democrats — Porter later elaborated. 

"‘Rigged’ means manipulated by dishonest means," she wrote in a statement posted to X. "A few billionaires spent $10 million+ on attack ads against me, including an ad rated ‘false’ by an independent fact checker. That is dishonest means to manipulate an outcome."

In that statement, she wrote, "I said ‘rigged by billionaires’ and our politics are — in fact — "manipulated by big dark money." 

"At no time have I ever undermined the vote count and election process in CA, which are beyond reproach," she added.

When contacted for comment, a Porter campaign spokesperson pointed us back to her statement on X and to Merriam-Webster’s definitions of the verb "rig," one of which reads, "to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means." Another of the definitions says "rig" is "to fix in advance for a desired result."

Porter’s posts landed in a fraught political environment in which former President Donald Trump and his supporters have consistently asserted that the 2020 presidential election was "rigged." The allegations have been widely rebutted by the courts. PolitiFact has repeatedly rated false and misleading claims about "rigged" U.S. elections.

Sometimes Democrats have joined in with similar language. In 2019, after Democrat Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 Georgia governor race to Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, Abrams claimed the "system is rigged" and repeatedly suggested the election was stolen. (PolitiFact found no proof that voter suppression kept Abrams from winning the 2018 governor’s contest.) 

Rigging an election might refer to buying votes, tampering with voting machines or stuffing a ballot box.

In Porter’s case, she faced an onslaught of opposition spending, some of it by wealthy entities with little or no disclosure required. However, spending unlimited amounts of money to buy ads is legal, as long as the spenders do not coordinate with candidates. 

Democracy and elections experts said people might disagree about whether such tactics should be legal, but this spending did not assure Porter’s loss or amount to a "rigged" election.

California’s Senate primary

California uses an unusual top-two primary system in which the candidates who finish in first and second place both advance to the general election — regardless of their party affiliation.

Although votes are still being counted, Porter is headed toward a third-place finish behind Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff and Republican Steve Garvey, a former Major League Baseball player. 

Garvey entered the race in October, following months of rumors about his possible candidacy. Garvey often polled below Schiff and close to Porter, according to FiveThirtyEight data.

Some news reports before the election characterized the race as one for second place between Porter and Garvey.

The effect of California Senate race spending

In February, Schiff’s campaign released a television ad contrasting him with Garvey. This tactic was expected to accomplish two goals for Schiff: to burnish his image for Democrats, and to make Republican voters aware of Garvey, potentially vaulting him above Porter and making the general election contest easier for Schiff in the solidly blue state. 

Outside money played a role, too.

A pro-Schiff political action committee bankrolled a 30-second ad in February that criticized Garvey for his conservative views and noted his past support for Trump. Around the same time these ads appeared, polling showed Garvey’s support increasing.

Polling showed that after the ads aimed at boosting Garvey began airing, Porter saw a modest increase in support.

In her post-election comments, however, Porter highlighted a different example of outside spending. 

Fairshake, a political action committee linked to cryptocurrency industry leaders, paid for the campaign ad Porter called "dishonest" and that she alleged "rigged" the election against her.

In the 2024 election cycle so far, Fairshake has spent $11.2 million on federal elections, with about $10 million of that spent opposing Porter, according to data from Open Secrets, a nonpartisan research group that tracks federal money in politics. 

Fairshake’s ad claimed Porter accepted donations "from Big Pharma, Big Oil and the Big Bank executives" — a claim The Sacramento Bee fact-checked and rated "mostly false," describing it as "misleading to viewers." 

Spending such as this is legal under the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

"That’s a fact, whether we like it or not," said Daniel Weiner, director of the Elections and Government Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, a group that advocates for expanding voting rights. Billionaires spending unlimited amounts of money on ads opposing Porter would not be considered "illegal acts designed to change the outcome of the election," he said.

Political action committees cannot be financed by prohibited sources such as foreign groups and cannot coordinate with campaigns, Weiner said. He characterized the Federal Election Commission’s rules for what constitutes coordination as "pretty weak."

Other political experts said that what occurred fell well short of rigging.

They agreed that Porter’s failure to secure one of the top two spots owes more to Schiff’s yearslong cultivation of California voters and Porter’s political shortcomings than rigging. 

"If a well-endorsed established politician beats a relative newcomer, that’s politics," said Robin Kolodny, a Temple University political scientist.

In American politics, experts say, money is a necessary component of a winning campaign but it is not the only one. In 2022, eight of the 10 congressional candidates with the most self-funding lost. In California, it is not uncommon to see well-financed candidates lose.

Voters cast their ballot on Super Tuesday, at the Ranchito Elementary School polling station March 5, 2024, in Los Angeles’ Panorama City section. (AP)

Some Democrats, democracy experts didn’t support Porter’s term 

Experts said Porter’s use of "rigged" echoes rhetoric she’s used against financial institutions during her political career.

"Populist candidates and activists are especially prone to blaming the system, because it maintains their belief that the system needs radical change for justice and social justice to prevail," said Wayne Steger, a DePaul University political scientist.

Democrats, including Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Alex Padilla of California, a former California secretary of state, criticized Porter’s use of the term "rigged." Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic strategist based in Florida, also rebutted Porter’s statement in an X post.

Schale told PolitiFact he believes it’s unhealthy rhetoric.

"All you are doing is playing into the narrative that nobody actually loses," Schale said. "One thing that makes our democracy work is people acknowledge they lose elections. There is nothing more important to our democracy than people acknowledging they lose elections."

Michael Thorning, structural democracy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center, agreed with Schale, calling Porter’s comment that billionaires spent money to rig the election "completely irresponsible and unserious" in a March 7 X post

The Brennan Center’s Weiner said Porter was calling attention to a "very real structural problem" that can disadvantage voters and candidates with less money. But he said he would not have used the term "rig" to discuss the issue because in the current political environment false claims about election rigging are "designed to delegitimize our democratic institutions." 

Our ruling

Porter said billionaires "rigged" the California senate primary election through "dishonest means," citing outside funding that supported attack ads against her. 

Outside funding for ads is legal and is not equivalent to predetermining a particular result. Rigging typically refers to things such as vote buying, ballot box stuffing or tampering with voting machines. It is based on limiting voter choice, and in the California race voters were free to choose among the candidates as they saw fit.

We rate this claim False. 

PolitiFact Senior Correspondent Amy Sherman contributed to this report.

RELATED: Trump’s new ‘evidence’ that Biden lost in 2020 is ridiculously wrong (and dusty). We reviewed it.

RELATED: All of our fact-checks about elections

Our Sources

Katie Porter’s post on X, March 6, 2024

Katie Porter’s post on X, March 7, 2024

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, rig, accessed March 7, 2024

Email interview with Wayne Steger, DePaul University political scientist, March 7, 2024

Email interview with David McCuan, Sonoma State University political scientist, March 7, 2024

Email interview with Robin Kolodny, Temple University political scientist, March 7, 2024

Email interview with Marcia Godwin, public administration professor at the University of La Verne, March 7, 2024

Telephone interview with Steve Schale, Democratic strategist, March 7, 2024

Telephone interview with Daniel Weiner, director of the Elections and Government Program at New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice, March 7, 2024

Emailed statement from Lindsay Reilly, a spokesperson for Katie Porter’s campaign, March 7, 2024, California Senate race polling, accessed March 7, 2024

New York Times, election results for California Senate race, accessed March 7, 2024

OpenSecrets, "Top self-funding congressional candidates were among the 2022 election cycle’s biggest losers," Feb. 13, 2023 

PolitiFact, How could U.S. voting be affected if election deniers win? Sept. 21, 2022

Roll Call, Katie Porter loses bid for Senate in California, March 6, 2024

Politico, How California’s ‘top 2’ primary election works, March 5, 2024

The Washington Post, Who is Steve Garvey, the Republican Senate candidate in California? March 6, 2024

Michael Thorning’s post on X, March 7, 2024

The Washington Post, Stacey Abrams’s rhetorical twist on being an election denier, Sept. 29, 2022

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, As she ponders Senate run, Abrams keeps focus on Kemp, Jan. 21, 2019

The Los Angeles Times, Schiff supporters air ads focused on GOP rival Steve Garvey in California Senate race, Feb. 9, 2024

The Washington Post, The California Senate race wasn’t ‘rigged’ either, March 7, 2024

PolitiFact, How ‘stop the steal’ Republicans seeking office hope to restrict voting, June 7, 2022

Politico, Adam Schiff’s new ad draws ire from GOP and Dem opponents, Feb. 1, 2024

The Los Angeles Times, Schiff’s latest ad boosts Republican Senate rival Steve Garvey. Rep. Katie Porter hates it, Feb. 1, 2024

Politico, Poll shows Garvey and Porter tied for second place in California’s Senate race, Feb. 1, 2024

The Associated Press, Former Los Angeles Dodgers star Steve Garvey swings for long shot US Senate win in California, Jan. 25, 2024

Politico, Poll shows Garvey and Porter tied for second place in California’s Senate race, Feb. 1, 2024

Katie Porter for Senate, New Dark Money Ad Again Lies To Voters About Katie Porter, Feb. 23, 2024

The Sacramento Bee, Fact check: Did Katie Porter get campaign cash from Big Pharma, Big Oil and Big Banks? Feb. 14, 2024

NBC News, Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Steve Garvey advance to the general election in California's Senate race, March 5, 2024

PolitiFact, Donald Trump says Joe Biden can only win by a 'rigged election.' That's wrong in several ways, Aug. 24, 2020

Federal Election Commission, Citizens United v. FEC, accessed March 7, 2024 

KTLA5, New poll shows tight race for 2nd in California’s U.S. Senate contest, Feb. 28, 2024

Politico, ‘Ridiculous’: Democrats assail Porter for saying foes sought to ‘rig’ Senate race, March 7, 2024

Axios, Scoop: Crypto leaders build colossal $78 million war chest for 2024, Dec. 18, 2023

The Los Angeles Times, Track the money flowing into the L.A. mayoral race, Oct. 28, 2022

Mark Z. Barabak, "Katie Porter goes MAGA, claiming California’s election was rigged. It wasn’t" (L.A. Times column), March 7, 2024

Politico, How Rick Caruso spent $104M and still lost the LA mayor’s race, Nov. 18, 2022

Open Secrets, Fairshake PAC Recipients, 2024, accessed March 7, 2024

PolitiFact, Nevada Republican echoes Trump’s Pants on Fire about 'rigged election,' Oct. 10, 2022

PolitiFact, No proof voter suppression kept Stacey Abrams from governorship, as Democrats said in Atlanta debate, Nov. 21, 2019

PolitiFact, Election denying candidates sought to undo voting rights. Many lost key races, Nov. 9, 2022

Tampa Bay Times, Huffington: $30-million losing Senate campaign ‘worth it,’ Nov. 14, 1994

The Washington Post, Experience Beats Money in Calif. Primary, June 4, 1998

PolitiFact, Donald Trump's baseless claims about the election being 'rigged,' Aug. 15, 2016

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Fact-checking Rep. Katie Porter’s claims that billionaires ‘rigged’ California’s Senate primary

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