Orange County: California’s Political Battleground

In this Nov. 6, 2018, file photo, Young Kim, then a Republican candidate for the 39th Congressional District, speaks to supporters in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(CN) — In 1988, in the waning days of his presidency, President Ronald Reagan made a stop in Fullerton, California, to stump for his Vice President George H.W. Bush and proclaimed, “Orange County is where the good Republicans go before they die.”

This remark met with laughter and applause at the time and has since continued to reinforce the notion that the GOP, which has steadily lost influence in the most populous state in the nation, could count on Orange County as a bastion for Republicans in an increasingly blue coastal California.

This notion appeared to explode in 2018, when Orange County voters paddled a board of anti-Trump sentiment into a blue wave that some on the Democratic side pronounced as proof positive that all coastal California was now firmly Democratic real estate.

But 2020 saw that blue wave pulled back by a red undertow, as Republicans Michelle Steel and Young Kim upset incumbent Democrats Harley Rouda and Gil Cisneros, respectively. This has led some to declare that 2018 was an aberration and Orange County will remain staunchly red for the foreseeable future.

The truth is more nuanced: Orange County is essentially up for grabs.

“You had incredibly close elections in 2018 and you had incredibly close elections again this year,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego. “Both elections were on a knife’s edge.”

In November, Steel prevailed by just over 2% of the vote, while Kim eked out a victory by around 4,000 votes.

The narrow margins reflect an Orange County that has grown more demographically and ideologically diverse in recent decades, evolving from a majority-white suburban enclave into a community more reflective of the state overall.

“Orange County has gotten more purple,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

And there are other factors at play.

In 2018, Democrats defeated white incumbents like Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters with a slate of young diverse candidates. The GOP used that playbook to vouchsafe its own gains in the latest cycle — Kim and Steel are both Korean Americans and young with established political brands.

“They ran good candidates,” Pitney said.

The red tide extended beyond Orange County in 2020, as Mike Garcia, a Latino, retained his seat he won after Democratic Rep. Katie Hill — a 2018 flip herself — resigned, and David Valadao beat out T.J. Cox to retake the Central Valley seat he lost to Cox in 2018. In all, Republicans clawed back four of the seven districts Democrats wrested from the previous cycle.

“In the House races, nearly all the flips involved a Republican who was a woman, a person of color or a veteran,” Pitney said. “They did a really good job of recruiting.”

Republicans using a diverse cohort to forward its ideas could be a means of regaining relevancy in California and other places where local GOP candidates are hurt by the national brand and outgoing President Donald Trump.

“The new face of the Republican Party is the new face of California, and the party hopes it will lead to a revitalization in California,” Kousser said.

In Orange County, where Asian Americans and Latinos account for slightly more than half of the population, running candidates who can appeal to them culturally as well as ideologically appeared to be a good move. It could serve as a playbook for the party across the state and nationally, Kousser said.

But Republicans shouldn’t rest on their laurels despite the notable victories.

Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, whose district also encompasses portions of Orange County, beat a Republican challenger by 7 points in a seat that was once secure for the GOP. Trump, who energized voters elsewhere, lost Orange County by a decisive margin, managing just 44% of the vote in the county compared to 53% for President-elect Joe Biden.

“Republican candidates actually did quite badly in California this cycle,” said Kousser. “They lost seats in the Legislature and lost a lot of seats in local government.”

John Moorlach, an incumbent Republican state senator who represents part of Orange County, got beat out by Democrat Dave Min. Republican state Senator Ling Ling Chang, another incumbent whose district covers portions of Orange County, also lost her seat to Democratic challenger Josh Newman.

But Democrats should hold off on celebrations as well.

Porter won by beating the type of Republican — a white man named Greg Raths who spent most of his campaign talking about his military service — who may be consigned to the ash heap of history in this part of California. If Republicans repeat the Michelle Steel-Young Kim playbook in that district, Porter may have a more robust challenge on her hands.

“There are still a lot of Republicans in Orange County,” Pitney said.

Pitney also noted the conditions in 2018 were extremely favorable to Democrats and it is unlikely such conditions will repeat again anytime soon.

“The Republicans were particularly vulnerable two years ago because of the top of the ticket,” he said. “There was no suspense about the governor’s race. Everybody knew Newsom was going to win and win big.”

In the U.S. Senate race, Dianne Feinstein ran against another Democrat in Kevin De Leon.

“Democrats were motivated to show up in 2018 and Republicans were not,” Pitney said. “Fast forward two years and both sides were motivated.”

All of which means neither party should be particularly confident when it comes to the future of Orange County politics.

“These seats and this area are up for grabs,” Kousser said. “The story that Orange County went from deep red to deep blue was always overblown. The truth is, that if you look closely at the trends, it was an incremental change that changed Orange County from a red stronghold to purple.”

California is a place of extremes. In places like San Francisco and Los Angeles and their suburbs, the voting bloc is reliably Democratic. The Republicans can safely plant their flags in the more rural parts of the state, from the Central Valley to the northern reaches of the state and throughout the Sierra counties.

But Orange County is a notable exception, a battleground where both parties will likely test the efficacy of their ideas and political messages.

“In the long run, Democrats will likely get stronger in Orange County given the demographic trends,” Pitney said. “But Republicans are going to be competitive in these suburbs for the foreseeable future as long as they run good candidates.”

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