State Watch

GOP plots comeback in Orange County

Greg Nash

After devastating midterm election losses in 2018, Republicans are contemplating how to win back one of their last redoubts in the most populous state in the nation.

For most of the past century, California’s Orange County was a bastion of West Coast conservatism, the ancestral homeland of both Richard Nixon and the Reagan Revolution and the foundation of the white evangelical movement headquartered in megachurches such as the Crystal Cathedral and Saddleback.

But Democrats won all seven of the congressional districts that touch Orange County last year, ousting two Republican incumbents in the process.


“Republicans can’t look at it as a fluke. They got outplayed,” said Justin Wallin, a Republican pollster based in Orange County.

The Democratic victories — foreshadowed nearly three years ago when Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to win Orange County since Franklin Roosevelt — reflect a region that has changed dramatically in recent decades.

In 1990, almost two-thirds of Orange County residents were non-Hispanic whites. Today, the population is 40 percent non-Hispanic white, about a third are Hispanic, and 18 percent are of Asian heritage.

As recently as 2010, Republicans enjoyed a registration advantage of almost 200,000 voters; today, the number of Republican voters outnumber Democrats by fewer than 20,000, and another 400,000 voters decline to choose a party.

The changing electorate gave Democrats a chance to capitalize on an unpopular president, even as Republicans showed up to defend their seats. Republican turnout actually increased across Orange County by more than 100,000 votes between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections — but Democratic turnout surged by nearly 200,000 votes, swamping the GOP, according to the Democratic data firm TargetSmart.

“The Republicans did pretty well in performing, as far as the sport of getting voters to the polls. We just had a much stronger response by the Democrats,” said John Moorlach, a Republican state senator who represents part of the county. “Things have changed quite a bit in 25 years. Over those 25 years, I will confess that maybe our team got a little complacent or comfortable. Now they realize they can’t do that anymore.”

Already, a handful of candidates are lining up to challenge the new Democratic incumbents.

Former Assemblywoman Young Kim (R) said this weekend she will mount another campaign against Rep. Gil Cisneros, who beat Kim by nearly 8,000 votes in 2018.


Four Republicans are running against Rep. Katie Porter (D), who ousted incumbent Rep. Mimi Walters (R) by 4 points. Rep. Harley Rouda (D) also faces four challengers after winning his seat by 7 points.
And two Republicans have already joined the race against Rep. Mike Levin (D), who replaced retiring Rep. Darrell Issa (R).

“A lot of people used their congressional votes as a little bit of a proxy on the [Trump] administration,” said Brian Maryott, the Republican mayor of San Juan Capistrano and one of those running against Levin. “We’re going to have a much more thorough discussion about the issues and the way forward from here as a country in 2020.”

Both Democrats and Republicans say what happens in Washington will impact votes in Orange County. Democrats point to President Trump’s tax reform package, which will raise taxes on some California residents who could previously deduct more of their mortgage interest and state and local taxes.

“Orange County is really the demographic center for the people who the Trump presidency has particularly turned off, which is suburban, upper middle class, highly educated whites who had voted Republican their whole lives,” said Michael Wagaman, a Democratic strategist in California.

Republicans say Democratic support for “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal will show the freshman Democrats are out of touch with their constituents. Republicans also plan to point to Sacramento, where Democrats who control the state legislature have proposed more than $15 billion in tax increases this year alone.

“We have a pilot program, if you will, for ultra progressive government underway. And it’s very difficult for working families to get by here,” Maryott said. Voters “have to think about that decision from a more disciplined place, as opposed to a more emotional place, which I think was the case in 2018.”

But some California Republicans say party talking points do not work in a county where winning depends on appeals to highly educated swing voters. The GOP’s lone success story in 2018 came in a race for district attorney, in which two Republicans advanced to the general election; the winner, Todd Spitzer, spent his campaign talking about local homelessness.

“The world is not as simple as it was 20, 30 years ago, when you could say someone’s a businessman, and that’s the cue for Republicans to vote for them,” Wallin said. “Good enough is not good anymore. You really need to be excellent.”

The Republicans running this time around face the daunting prospect of introducing themselves to voters in one of the most expensive media markets in the country, Los Angeles, an area that covers more than 5 million people.

Three of the four Democratic incumbents raised more than $400,000 in the first quarter of the year, making them among the most prodigious fundraisers in the country. The fourth, Cisneros, is a wealthy lottery winner who spent more than $9 million of his own money in 2018.

“They’re going to have to have millions of dollars,” Wallin said of potential Republican challengers. “They’re already behind the eight ball.”

And those Republicans will be, for the most part, on their own. Trump’s campaign has shown no interest in competing in a state where he took just 32 percent of the vote in 2016.

Moorlach, whose seat is up for election in 2020, said Republicans need to focus on more localized issues. His district, based in Irvine, Calif., gave Mitt Romney 54 percent of the vote in 2012 — and went for Clinton by 6 points in 2016.

“The messaging needs to change. I won’t say that some of us are getting educated on how to do our phraseology. I may not think that climate change is an existential threat. I’m more concerned about tensions and recessions and fiscal implosions,” he said. “Dealing with finances cuts across party lines. People understand dollars.”

Tags Darrell Issa Donald Trump Gil Cisneros Harley Rouda Hillary Clinton Mimi Walters Mitt Romney Orange County, California U.S. House elections

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