HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. (CN) – A steady stream of tourists and locals strolled the Huntington Beach Pier one overcast October morning, some unaware they traversed a key battleground district for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
For the last 30 years, Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher has represented Huntington Beach in Orange County. Rohrabacher, 71, has touted anti-immigration rhetoric, and earlier this year said that homeowners should be able to discriminate against selling to members of the LGBTQ community.
But recent demographic shifts could signal a change in the region.
In 2016, Rohrabacher’s coastal district was one of 23 split-tickets in which voters went for Hillary Clinton while keeping their Republican representative. It marked a turning point – and Democrats set their sights on districts they viewed as held by weak Republican representatives.
Democrats could wrest control of the House if they clinch 23 seats across the nation. That includes several seats in California in historically conservative districts, like the 48th held by Rohrabacher.
Hispanic and Asian residents make up the majority of Orange County’s 3.17 million population, according to the Census Bureau – and that shift from a majority white population two decades ago presents a shift in talking points and voters, too.
Aliso Viejo resident Cathlynn Morse said her neighbors in a community consisting mostly of senior citizens think Rohrabacher does not represent their views on issues such as housing affordability, homelessness and mental health.
“They’re all connected in my mind,” said Morse. “We’re all just one bad situation away from living on the street.”
Morse’s adult son copes with mental illness and was temporarily homeless, which she said could have been devastating if he didn’t get treatment.
From 2016 to 2017, California’s homeless population grew by almost 14 percent to a total of about 134,000 people, signifying one of the largest jumps in recent history.
Rohrabacher has alienated voters like Morse with his statement that homeowners should be allowed to discriminate against people from the LGBTQ community as reported by The Orange County Register in May, and his hard-line anti-immigration rhetoric, which includes blaming California’s “sanctuary state” law for a rise in California’s crime.
But not everyone is turned off by these positions. Voter Bernard Michaels said while walking on the sand in Huntington Beach that he’s voting for Rohrabacher, because he believes the puka-shell wearing, surfing incumbent will follow through on his promise to strengthen the border.
“I voted for Obama the first time, but I see that was a mistake. Dana [Rohrabacher] has a tough fight,” Michaels said. “The media wants to paint him as a racist. He’s honest.”
Democrat Harley Rouda, a lawyer and real estate developer, has given Rohrabacher one of his first challenging races in years. Recent polling shows the two are about even, with Rohrabacher pulling 50 percent of voter support and Rouda pulling 48, according to an October 23 Monmouth University report. The results are within the poll’s margin of error, and other forecasts show the district leaning toward Rouda.
Rouda has focused his attack ads on Rohrabacher’s close ties with Russia and his anti-science stance – Rohrabacher once told southern California radio station KPCC he did not believe global warming was something to worry about.
Neither candidate was available for comment.
Not far away in the 45th District, Democrat and University of California, Irvine, law professor Katie Porter looks to unseat Republican incumbent Mimi Walters.
Judy Kaufman of Irvine, a member of the non-partisan political education group California 45th, said she’s not sure the “blue wave” will sweep across the county – but that Democrats could have a better chance with the rapidly growing Asian and Latino population.
“Whether they turn into voters and what kind of voters they turn into is the question,” Kaufman said. “It’s hard to predict where it will go because those groups are not predictably one party or the other.”
At Porter’s campaign outpost in Tustin, volunteer Vishal Menon, 24, worked alongside people making calls to prospective voters.
Menon, a UCI grad student, said he took off fall quarter to support Porter’s campaign, motivated by the fallout from the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
Menon said his campus can be a “focal point of the election” if politicians take more time to engage with students, something he said Porter’s opponent hasn’t done enough.
“Holding town halls and being open to your constituency is critical,” Menon said.
Walters, who votes mostly in line with President Donald Trump’s agenda, hasn’t held a town hall in almost two years.
At an Anaheim rally in support of Proposition 6 – a ballot measure to repeal California’s so-called “gas tax” – Walters told supporters that the state’s Democratic leaders are wasting tax dollars.
“We’re gonna take back the power of taxation and send a message to liberals,” Walters said, as more than 100 rally attendees began chants of “drain the swamp.”
Just 41 percent of California residents say they plan to vote for Proposition 6, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll, while 48 percent say they oppose it.
After the rally, Walters did not take questions from reporters. Her campaign also did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.
Wesley Hussey, an associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, said in an interview he believes the tight race between Walters and Porter sums up the Republican Party’s future in California.
“Even in Orange County, with a non-controversial incumbent Republican in trouble, that is the strongest signal that the Republican Party in California is dying,” Hussey said. “If Mimi Walters loses, I think definitely the Democrats take the House because a bunch of other seats will probably fall at that point too.”
But Republican Young Kim – who is vying for the 39th District seat currently held by retiring Republican Representative Ed Royce – told reporters after the rally that she is “a different kind of Republican.”
As an immigrant from South Korea, Kim said she understands immigrants’ struggles. She believes young people brought to the U.S. without legal documentation should be allowed to stay.
“I won’t be anti-immigrant. But I want to secure the border,” Kim said. “I want a fair immigration process that is also compassionate.”
Kim, a former state legislator and long-time aide to Royce, would be the first Korean American elected to Congress.
A New York Times poll conducted from Oct. 18 to 23 shows Democrat and political newcomer Gil Cisneros leading by a hair – at 47 percent to Kim’s 46.
Cisneros, a former Republican and Navy veteran, became a millionaire education philanthropist after winning the lottery.
In an interview, Cisneros said he supports immigration reform and believes expanding and rebuilding the border wall would be “a big waste of money.”
Cisneros called Kim “Ed Royce 2.0” and said she represents an extension of the lack of representation voters have experienced over two decades.
“Lots of people have been disenfranchised or stood on the sidelines and haven’t gotten involved,” he said. “We’re letting voters know this is the most important election of their lifetime.”
Over in the 25th district, which covers parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, hundreds of voters attended a debate in Simi Valley between Republican incumbent Steve Knight and Democratic challenger Katie Hill.
Simi Valley is home to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and its courthouse is the site of the not-guilty jury verdict handed down to the four white Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King with batons, sparking the 1992 L.A. Riots.
Simi Valley resident Matthew Baker sat in a camping chair near the front of the line to get into the debate forum. He wore a red “Make America Great Again” cap and a red t-shirt. He said when he first moved to the city, an official sign read, “Welcome to Simi Valley.”
“And someone put a little sign that said, ‘Where we treat you like a King,’” recalled Baker. “I thought that was sick. The sicker part was it didn’t come down for three months. I was a little concerned, but over time the demographics have changed and there is a much bigger mix.”
At the debate, Hill and Knight discussed gun control, the shape of the economy, health care and women’s rights.
Immigration has become one of the main talking points for campaigns in southern California. Knight, a former Los Angeles police officer and army veteran, has emphasized veterans’ access to health care and introduced a bill over the summer that would end family separation at the border. He also called for immigration reform, which puts him out-of-step with the GOP’s main party line.
Knight has advocated for veterans and breastfeeding mothers, but the Democratic National Committee nonetheless labeled him as a weak target earlier this year.
Hill formerly worked for a nonprofit providing services to the homeless. She challenged Knight’s contributions from big donors, playing up her own grassroots donations.
On immigration, she leaned toward moderation.
“I believe in having border security,” she said. “I believe it’s possible to have smart and tough immigration policy that is also humane. I think it is a perfect example of where partisan politics have failed us.”
Knight said when we talk about immigration, it has to be done not with a huge overhaul bill, but with something that could make its way through the House and not get voted down.
In response, Hill said that Republicans have been in charge and have been unable to bring a bill that could get passed due to divisiveness in their own party. That includes an inability to agree on whether to support DACA recipients – those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children – so they can have a pathway to citizenship.
Knight pounced on that phrase.
“There is no such thing as a pathway to citizenship,” he said. “I love it when people say that and they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Outside the debate, Knight said he’s waging a campaign of results versus resistance.
“There’s a resistance there to resist anything. And there are results,” said Knight. “We’ve gone through three debates now. I talk about what I’ve achieved, and she just talks about it’s bad, bad, bad. I’d rather be a positive person.”
Hill was unavailable for comment after the debate.
Nick Cahill contributed to this report from Sacramento.