Democrats Flip Orange County Supervisor Seat Held by GOP for 120 Years

Katrina Foley is also the first female Democrat ever to sit on the five-member Orange County Board of Supervisors.

In this photo of a group of current and former Orange County, California, officials, Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley can be seen on the far right. On March 9, 2021, Foley became the first female Democrat to be elected to the Orange County Board of Supervisors. (Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register via AP)

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — Democrats picked up a second seat on the five-member Orange County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday when Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley won a special election to replace a Republican supervisor elected to Congress last year.

From the nearly 96,000 ballots cast in the special election, Foley picked up 44.28% of the vote out of a crowded field of five candidates, according to Orange County Registrar of Voters data posted Tuesday. 

Republican John Moorlach, a former state senator and Orange County supervisor who was backed by the county’s GOP party, took second in the race with 30.98% of ballots.

Moorlach also recently lost a bid for a second full term in the state Senate, losing to Democrat Dave Min this past November.

Voter turnout in the coastal Second District — where Republicans held a formidable advantage in the number of registered voters — came in at 24.3%, according to county data.

Fellow Republican candidates Newport Beach Mayor Pro Tem Kevin Muldoon and Fountain Valley Mayor Michael Vo had 11.24% and 9.03% of the vote, respectively, while Democratic newcomer Janet Rappaport picked up 4.46%, according to county data.

Fred Smoller, political scientist at Chapman University in Southern California, said in an interview that while the GOP candidates in the race split over 50% of combined votes, the result was no fluke for Foley. 

“Conventional wisdom would say there were too many Republican candidates who split the vote,” Smoller said Wednesday. “I think there’s more to it than that. The county continues to shift. It’s no longer a red or blue county but a purple county.”

Smoller said the result will “embolden” county Democrats to inject more resources in local races at all levels of government.

Tuesday’s victory also gives Democrats momentum going into 2022, when they’re expected to fight for the Fifth District seat being vacated by Republican OC Supervisor Lisa Bartlett due to term limits.

“That election could shift the board under a majority for Democrats,” Smoller said.

Foley’s precedent-setting victory tips the officially nonpartisan board’s political leaning to a competitive 3-2 GOP majority. The political body oversees a county budget of more than $6 billion annually.

With Foley’s victory, Democrats now have their first-ever female member on the Board of Supervisors and the first Democrat to represent the county’s coastal Second District since 1894.

The Southern California mayor takes over the seat vacated by Republican Michelle Steel when she was elected to the House of Representatives last year.

Steel and fellow GOP Rep. Young Kim upset incumbent Democrats Harley Rouda and Gil Cisneros in 2020 races, becoming two of the first three Korean American women elected to Congress.

While campaigning, Foley styled herself as a public servant who would tackle the county’s affordable housing issues, infuse leadership into the response to the Covid-19 pandemic and boost employment and education access for residents. 

As Tuesday’s special election result appeared to solidly favor Democrats, Foley said on Twitter she was ready for the work ahead.

“I’m so humbled by the support we received tonight and grateful for the confidence voters have placed in me,” Foley tweeted. “The challenges we face are serious, but I know that they are no match for the strength and resiliency of Orange County’s residents. I can’t wait to get to work.”

Foley’s term will run until November 2022.

Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, who represents the county’s 45th Congressional District, tweeted her support Tuesday and said she was pleased with the outcome of the election.

“I’m so delighted that Katrina Foley will be the first Democratic woman on the OC Board of Supervisors,” Porter tweeted. “I proudly helped campaign for Katrina, and I look forward to partnering with her on housing, education and job creation in our community.”

Orange County Democratic Party chairwoman Ada Briceño said in a statement Tuesday the special election results show the party is building momentum and gaining support from a spectrum of voters.

“Voters overwhelmingly trust Mayor Katrina Foley to guide us through the pandemic,” Briceño said. “Veteran’s groups, teachers, nurses, hotel workers, paramedics and business owners stood together because Mayor Foley finds common-sense solutions to get the work done. We look forward to her service on the Board of Supervisors.” 

Briceño is the first immigrant and second Latina to lead the OC Democratic Party.

The result means Orange County Republicans have lost their 4-1 supermajority on a board they’ve maintained control over for decades, marking yet another critical point in the ongoing political shift in the historically conservative stronghold.

Democrats gained control of the U.S. House in 2018 riding an unprecedented “blue wave” which swept dozens of Republicans across the Southern California county out of office, including a total sweep of the seven congressional districts in Orange County.

The results that year signaled a tidal shift in politics in the longtime Republican-held congressional districts, which Hillary Clinton carried in the 2016 presidential race.

The energy fomented by voters — who came out in record numbers that year — also trickled into local politics with Democrat Doug Chaffee claiming victory in the board’s Fourth District, the victory for a Democrat in more than a decade.

Tuesday’s election results further solidify the notion that Orange County — once a jewel of the Republican Party — is a political battlefield, with multiple seats up for grabs as the region becomes more politically and demographically diverse. 

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