After decades as a safe harbor for Republicans, then a huge swing to the left in 2018, this year’s election results show that Orange County — unlike much of the rest of California — remains very much in play for both political parties at all levels of government.
“Most of the local districts are now competitive enough that the ripple of big national swings is likely to be felt in the county’s election results,” said Kevin Wallsten, political science professor at Cal State Long Beach.
That means when Democrats have a good year nationally, they’ll likely have a good year in Orange County. And when Republicans surge, they remain competitive enough to win back some seats.
And so in this most confounding of years, where Democrats have clinched the White House but lost ground in the House and the Senate remains undecided, Orange County’s results appear to offer a similarly mixed bag.
One thing seems clear: 2018’s blue wave wasn’t a fluke. Joe Biden has claimed 137,155 more O.C. votes than Trump so far — a much wider margin than Hillary Clinton got over Trump in O.C. in 2016. And Democrats are still easily holding a majority of local House seats.
But, with the caveat that vote counts over the next week still could change the races, two county House seats currently are on track to swing back from blue to red, while Democrats don’t appear positioned to take any of the state seats or the county seat they invested heavily to flip.
Democrats are faring much better at the local level, claiming a majority of county school board seats for the first time and turning several major cities over not just to Democrats, but to new progressive majorities.
Experts who track regional politics say party matters in Orange County. But they add that candidates and their campaigns also matter, and that many local voters apparently are willing to split their ticket if candidates don’t measure up.
In the overlapping 39th Congressional District and 29th State Senate District, which cover a swath of Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, voters are poised to boot their Democratic House incumbent, Gil Cisneros, and replace him with Republican Young Kim. But many of those same voters also appear to be ousting their Republican state senator, Ling Ling Chang, and giving the seat to Democrat Josh Newman.
In such deeply divided times, Scott Spitzer, political science professor at Cal State Fullerton, said maybe the fact that not everyone appears to be voting down the party isn’t such a bad thing.
“The good news is that, even with the larger picture being we’re so partisan and so politicized, a good candidate from the Republican Party in a place like Orange County can still punch through the growing power on the Democratic side, or a bad candidate on the Democratic side can still lose,” Spitzer said. “And that’s important.”
Finances also are at play. Kim had a better-funded campaign than Cisneros, for example, while Chang was at a serious disadvantage compared to Newman.
Identity politics could also be a factor, said longtime Newport Beach pollster Adam Probolsky, with both Kim and fellow Korean American Michelle Steel — a Republican who’s on track to potentially flip back the 48th District seat held by Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda — appealing to the large population of Asian American voters who live in their districts.
While the race for CA-48 was always expected to be close, because voter registration in the district still leans red, Wallsten said the biggest surprise for him in O.C. results so far is that Cisneros is trailing Kim in CA-39.
“I think most people assumed that this district, which was historically a safe seat for Republicans, would continue trending towards the Democrats into the foreseeable future given the general leftward drift of the area’s politics,” Wallsten said.
Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma said with the coronavirus holding down the economy some Republicans and independents who don’t like Trump still voted with their pocketbooks in mind in local elections.
But other than the CA-39 race, Wallsten said the main surprise in O.C. results so far was the lack of surprises.
“Given the unexpected success of Republicans in congressional races in other parts of the country, I have been surprised that we haven’t seen any big upsets locally. The results in the O.C. have been in-line with the broader political shifts we have been watching unfold over the last few election cycles.”
Wallsten said the biggest shift of the 2018 midterm — Democrats sweeping seven House seats in once deeply Republican Orange County — has generated a still open question: Were county voters simply outraged by Donald Trump, or are have they shifted left?
The 2020 results, he added, suggest the latter.
“What most of these results show is that the O.C. is a ‘blue’ county now, where Republicans will be underdogs in local, state and federal elections. In other words, results like these are part of the ‘new normal’ in O.C. politics.”
When it comes to local races, since voters often don’t have a lot of information or pay much attention to them, Wallsten said they’re best understood as proxies for where the localities are in terms of their overall partisanship.
In Irvine, voters appear poised to swap out the longtime mayor and half the GOP-dominated council. And Santa Ana voters are on track to usher in a progressive, millennial council.
Probolsky wasn’t at all surprised to see so many local races go to Democrats because, in his view, they had a much better ground game.
“In Orange County, especially, boy did Democrats organize well,” he said.
That advantage will be hard for the GOP to match going forward given that in California Democrats typically are better funded than Republicans.
Still, O.C. voters were more conservative when it came to many state ballot measures. For example, while voters statewide passed a bill to restore voting rights to parolees, voters in Orange County opposed it.
Probolsky insists it’s too soon to know where O.C. politics will settle once the Trump factor is removed.
“We are in a unique, weird, bizarre, crazy time. The president was destructive and problematic and had all the issues that you don’t want a president to have. Orange County rejected him four years ago, two years ago, and they’re rejecting him today,” said Probolsky, who is nonpartisan but has long ties to the local GOP.
“I think there is going to be a righting of the ship when he’s gone. And we’ll see what Orange County really looks like in two years and four years.”
One factor might be how much the local party tries to distance itself from Trump-brand Republicanism once he’s gone.
That doesn’t look likely so far, judging by how the Republican Party of Orange County and some local GOP leaders are amplifying Trump’s unproven claims of election fraud as he falls behind in vote counts. On Wednesday, Nov. 4, the party issued a fundraising email claiming, without evidence, that “the Democrats and Joe Biden are trying to steal this election.” It then asked for money, saying, “We need your help to stop the steal from coming to Orange County.”
Two days later State Sen. John Moorlach, who is trailing Democrat Dave Min in his bid for reelection in the 37th District, also suggested in his newsletter that voter fraud could be playing a roll in his disappointing showing.
“The unknown ‘X Factor’ in the mix is the amount of actual voter fraud,” Moorlach wrote. He mentioned that he’d heard from people who claimed they received two ballots and, though the Registrar won’t accept more than one ballot from the same person, he suggested that might be indicative of widespread problems with the election. “Based on the anecdotal evidence I have received from some constituents, I believe this concern is a valid one.”
Since Democrats aren’t on track to hold all their House wins from 2018, or make any gains in state seats this year, Spitzer believes they also need to come up with a new political message to win elections going forward.
Like Democrats nationally, the local Democratic party is divided on a simple question: Are they being progressive enough to fire up young and diverse voters, or are they leaning too far left already?
Such schisms are something Spitzer said both parties will have to confront, post-election, as they try to win over Orange County voters going forward.
Source: Orange County Register