(CN) – In 2018, Orange County – one of California’s last Republican enclaves – was swept by a “Blue Wave” as Democrats, moderates and defecting Republicans turned off by President Donald Trump’s rebranding of the GOP ousted all four Republican representatives which held the majority of the county’s six congressional districts.
Now, Republicans are vying for a comeback in California’s suburban, wealthy enclave which is quickly evolving to mirror the cultural diversity the state is known for.
GOP takes aim at Orange County Democrats
Orange County officials revealed in August that more residents had registered as Democrats than as Republicans.
Ada Briceño, chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, praised the new figures and said the party is working to build on 2018 gains, including by capturing down-ballot seats in the county next year.
“We’ve been transforming ourselves for years,” Briceño said in an interview. “We’re seeing the fruits of our labor. We know all eyes in the nation are looking at us and we’re not taking anything for granted.”
But nearly a third of the county’s 1.6 million registered voters identify as having no party preference.
Orange County Republican Party director Randall Avila said in an interview that he believes the GOP can win over no-party voters through face-to-face engagement and targeted online ads.
“A lot of these voters are frustrated with affordability,” Avila said, adding that taxes and housing costs have forced many to consider leaving California. “Those with kids in college are not seeing a real future where their kids can graduate, get jobs and buy homes.”
The GOP will invest heavily in the 39th District race, where Avila said voters are upset that Rep. Gil Cisneros, who campaigned as a moderate, backed impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump.
“The game is a little different than it was in 2018,” Avila said regarding shifting voter sentiments. “People saw our candidates as a proxy vote on the president, but in 2020 they can vote down Trump if they like.”
But Fred Smoller, a Chapman University professor, believes Cisneros’ incumbent advantage and fundraising power – coupled with Trump’s unpopularity – will mean victory for Democrats.
“In Orange County, which supported Hillary Clinton [in 2016], Trump doesn’t represent the business-oriented Republicans who want less regulation and are free-traders,” Smoller said. “Money matters. Republicans would have to mount a very big campaign.”
And Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra said while Cisneros had a tough time flipping the seat in 2018, “he’ll have an easier time keeping it” as the district was already trending Democratic.
Guerra said Democrats are expected to turn out to polls in greater numbers in 2020.
“If you didn’t win in 2018 when there were less Democrats voting, how are you going to win when there’s much more Democrats voting in 2020?” Guerra said. “Is it possible that Republicans capture one or two of the [Orange County] seats? Sure. But I see no scenario where they re-capture all of them.”
Democrats look to build on ‘Blue Wave’
Cynthia Aguirre knows working class and immigrant residents in her Orange County community have to push elected officials to advocate for them. She isn’t waiting for anyone to do the heavy lifting, which is why she volunteered at a food drive for 300 residents in the 39th District.
Most people receiving donations are undocumented, have at least two minimum wage jobs and are barely scraping by. Aguirre, also a local school board president, jumped into action.
She joined other progressive members of Orange County Democratic Party in calling on officials to embrace pro working-class platforms ahead of the 2020 election. They also want Cisneros to support anti-deportation and living wage policies.
“It’s a whole shift to include people who’ve never had a seat at the table,” said Aguirre. “But waiting won’t bring voters out. We need officials working on social justice legislation now.”
Cisneros – who squares off in a March 3 rematch against Republican Young Kim – told Courthouse News his platform includes protecting the environment, health care systems and infrastructure from Trump administration rollbacks. He also said he backs “comprehensive immigration reform” but did not respond directly to the question of how he would protect immigrant residents from deportations.
Cisneros’ position on immigration reform may be too moderate for the people who voted the Navy veteran in. Meanwhile, Aguirre said “boots on the ground won’t support him” if he doesn’t take risks for them.
“The seat just flipped, I get it,” Aguirre said. “But you have to be an advocate for the most vulnerable. It’s a humane issue, not just a political issue.”
Kim did not respond to requests for an interview. But Republican voter Paula Dufault said she’s upset with congressional Democrats who have steered the country “left” and believes candidates like Kim can flip their districts back to the GOP.
Engaging voters to maintain grassroots support
Rep. Mike Levin has held 11 town halls in as many months since winning the race for the 49th District in 2018, following a groundswell of support by residents who protested weekly at his the district office of his predecessor Darrell Issa.
Issa – who Levin said only held 3 town halls in 18 years – decided not to run for re-election. But he’s now vying for the vulnerable District 50 seat held by fellow Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to a single charge of converting campaign funds to personal use and said he will resign.
Levin said the town halls help him be as “accountable and transparent as possible” and keep volunteers engaged in a non-election year.
He also noted he never stopped his voter outreach field program, picking up his door-knocking campaign this past March after a few months off.
“I’m not going to take anything for granted. It was incredibly difficult to flip this district,” Levin said in a phone interview.
Levin’s work during his first year as congressman has included many bipartisan bills on veterans and climate issues.
“It’s really critical for me and others in similar districts to work across the aisle; we have to be mindful the Senate is still controlled by Republicans,” Levin said. “I want to get something done. I don’t want to just introduce bills just for the sake of doing it.”
While demographics have changed in District 49, there are 16,000 more Republicans than Democrats registered in the Orange County portion of District 49 which Levin did not carry in 2018. He acknowledged “there will be a fight” for independent and decline-to-state voters as well.
But he said he hasn’t shied away from “voting my values” on hot-button partisan issues: he’s thrown his support behind the Green New Deal and impeachment inquiry of Trump.
Those line-in-the-sand issues could be why a poll conducted last month put him in a dead heat with his Republican challenger, San Clemente Mayor Brian Maryott. But Levin said Maryott has taken the wrong stance on some issues important to voters in the district, including supporting the GOP tax bill which placed a new cap on state and federal deductions – a policy Levin said has hit many middle-income Californians in their wallets.
“My potential opponent has said Californians shouldn’t have cried over the cap,” Levin said of Maryott, who did not respond to requests for comment. “I think that’s extraordinarily wrong-headed, inconsistent with the district and even inconsistent with Issa’s position on the tax bill.”
Misty O’Healy, the lead for progressive group Indivisible 49 and a volunteer at Levin’s town halls, doesn’t take her new representative for granted. She said at best, District 49 is a swing district and “really good Republican,” could flip the district back to red in 2020 – which is why Levin is working to engage decline-to-state voters.
O’Healy said she’s still working to get out the vote for Levin and that he has her family’s support because he’s working on bipartisan bills and “finding common ground on how things can get progressed through the committees and passed to have a positive impact” on District 49.
“He’s not being a representative that just digs his heels in and is entrenched so he’s not willing to hear the other side. We clearly, with Darrell Issa, never had that. The contrast is so stark it still sets me back a bit,” O’Healy said.
Impeachment, the elephant in the room
What effect the impeachment inquiry – and potential trial in the Senate – will have on the races is anyone’s guess. Avila, the county Republican Party director, said he believes county Democrats are overplaying their hand by bringing a national focus where voters want local advocacy.
“Voters are looking and saying, ‘What are you doing locally,’” Avila said. “We’re hearing from folks that don’t like the president and are no party preference that their dislike doesn’t mean they want to direct the country into hearings.”
Smoller, the Chapman University professor, believes the impeachment proceedings will motivate some to vote but won’t have much sway on the election overall.
“I see it as really coming down based on partisan lines,” Smoller said. “Presidential elections tend to be good for Democrats because there’s a better turnout of young voters and people of color.”
For 39th District resident Gus Castellanos, however, the impact of impeachment on local elections is irrelevant.
“I see it absolutely necessary and the duty of Congress. Let the facts dictate where we go from here,” Castellanos said.