LOS ANGELES (CN) – The results of Tuesday’s election for an open seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, historically a Republican-controlled body, could mark a continued political shift in the county ahead of the 2020 presidential race.
Democrats gained control of the U.S. House in 2018 by riding the blue wave that swept dozens of Republicans across the country out of office, including a total sweep of the seven districts in Orange County.
The results signaled a continued build-up of tidal shifts in politics in the longtime Republican-held congressional districts, which Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential race.
The election energy from voters – who came out in record numbers in November – also trickled into local politics with Democrat Doug Chaffee claiming victory in the 4th District, the first board-election victory for a Democrat in more than a decade.
The non-partisan supervisor position may be easy to overlook in the context of national or regional politics, but both parties have spent heavily in the race to claim a seat that helps oversee a more than $6 billion county budget.
The seat up for grabs on Tuesday was vacated by Todd Spitzer who won his election in November for the county district attorney position, beating out 20-year incumbent Tony Rackauckas.
The county’s Republican Party has fielded six candidates for the 3rd District seat, though two have emerged as frontrunners – Irvine Mayor Don Wagner and former Anaheim councilwoman Kris Murray.
The lone Democrat in the race, former Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who convinced two fellow Democrats to drop out of the race, has positioned herself in prior elections as a moderate candidate.
Sanchez, who served in Congress for 10 terms, lost her 2016 bid for a U.S. Senate seat to current U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
The first round of election results, which counted only mail-in votes, reported at 8:45 p.m. Tuesday showed Wagner leading the race with 40 percent of the vote and Sanchez with 36 percent.
An update Wednesday morning showed Wagner maintaining a 3,000-vote lead over Sanchez, but there are still 9,000 ballots left to count. The other Republican frontrunner, Murray, had just 7 percent of the vote as of Wednesday morning.
All mailed ballots must be received by Friday in order to be counted.
The frontrunners have taken turns criticizing the current supervisors over what they’ve claimed is a lack of leadership on county issues such as homelessness and transportation infrastructure improvement.
They’ve said in campaign statements that supervisors have mismanaged county funds and failed to properly address the deepening housing affordability crisis.
Spokespersons for the Republican frontrunners did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sanchez said in a campaign statement that she would bring to her supervisor position the experience of securing national funding for county projects, including $500 million for water recycling plant and billions more for highway widening projects.
Sanchez said she would also push environmental justice-based proposals in order to conserve the 3rd District’s natural landscapes.
“Some of the Orange County’s greatest landscapes are threatened by increased road construction, oil and gas exploration,” the statement said.
A Democratic victory in the race would still leave the balance of power tipped in favor of Republicans.
But Dr. Fred Smoller, a Chapman University researcher, said in an interview Tuesday that such a victory would be significant in that it would signal a continuation of the blue wave.
Smoller said Sanchez has a chance at winning if Murray and Wagner split the Republican vote enough to create an opening for Democratic voters.
A spokesperson for Sanchez did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Republicans have historically held the advantage in voter registration numbers, but Smoller said that will change in a year, based on his review of demographic data.
An April 2018 survey by Smoller and other Chapman researchers found that the social and political viewpoints of residents have shifted to more progressive ones, including support for gun control and rent control.
By large percentages, adult respondents to the survey said they support stronger regulations for firearms, policies that protect the environment and a legal path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Smoller said a defeat for Republicans in the race would mark a setback, but not a total collapse of the party in Orange County.
“It’s definitely not a dead party,” Smoller said, adding that Republicans still hold majorities in most Orange County cities and represent majorities on local councils and schools boards. “The rumors of the party’s death are overstated.”
The 3rd District – which encompasses the cities of Irvine, Anaheim Hills, Tustin, Orange, Yorba Linda and Villa Park – has been represented by Republicans for decades.
The other four Republicans in the race are Larry Bales, Irvine-based Katherine Daigl, former Villa Park official Deborah Pauly and Tustin-based Kim-Thy Hoang Bayliss.
Nearly 340,000 voters are registered in the district, according to the Orange County Registrar of Voters.
There is no run-off for the race, meaning the winner of Tuesday’s election will claim the open seat for 21 months.