SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — In 2018, Harley Rouda did the unthinkable: He wrested Orange County’s 48th Congressional District from the hands of longtime Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher and turned the seat blue.
But the district might flip back to red this year, with GOP candidate Michelle Steel holding a healthy lead of about 5,000 votes, according to the latest count update from the Orange County Registrar of Voters. As of Friday, 175,000 votes remain uncounted.
There’s also an important caveat, because vote-by-mail ballots postmarked Nov. 3 will be accepted by the Orange County Registrar up until Nov. 20 under rules adopted by California due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Much had been made about vote-by-mail ballots and drop boxes in the weeks leading up to the election in the Golden State. The California GOP placed unofficial ballot boxes in at least three counties, including Orange County, and Rouda accused Steel of having boxes at her campaign headquarters.
A Republican sea change wouldn’t be all too surprising after a tumultuous 2020 that saw thousands of anti-mask protesters taking to the streets along coastal communities, demanding Orange County officials rescind a mask mandate implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Along with her colleagues on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, Steel appointed Dr. Clayton Chau as county health officer when former health officer Dr. Nichole Quick abruptly resigned after receiving threats over the mandate.
Rouda and Steel differ greatly in their approach to the virus. Rouda criticized the county’s mishandling of testing in July that led to an artificially inflated testing percentage, while Steel has advocated for a faster reopening despite a surging case count.
Both candidates have boasted their humble beginnings as they vie to represent the 48th District.
Rouda, a former registered Republican, was a practicing lawyer in Columbus, Ohio, before becoming general counsel for his family’s real estate business.
Steel, a South Korean immigrant who arrived in the United States as a young adult, is married to Republican National Committee member Shawn Steel. He also runs a personal injury practice in Seal Beach, California.
Rouda has attempted to draw attention to his opponent’s ties to the Trump presidency. That might have been an ineffective tactic in the onetime Republican stronghold, though the latest results show former Vice President Joe Biden secured 53% of the vote in Orange County versus just 44% for President Donald Trump.
Like the presidential race, the race for Rouda’s seat is still too close to call, but the gap between the two candidates has been widening as Steel pulls ahead.
“Look, I know everyone’s anxious,” said Rouda in a video statement on Thursday. “We want to know how this race turned out, but we have to make sure that every vote is counted. So, we need to be patient, not just in this race, but across America, many races are still having votes being counted.”