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Newsom recall helps Orange County Republicans boost ground game

Heading into the 2020 election, Orange County Republicans had about 2,000 volunteers helping to knock on doors and make phone calls for GOP candidates.

Today, party chair Fred Whitaker says his party is on the verge of tripling that army, and that some 6,000 people have contacted the local GOP asking how they can help.

In terms of political engagement, 2021 should be an off year. Instead, the effort to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has been a shot in the arm for the Republican Party of Orange County, which clawed back two House seats in November but has otherwise been losing ground for years as the county has become more diverse, more Democratic, and less supportive of Donald Trump-brand Republicanism.

GOP leaders believe the energy that’s boosting the Newsom recall effort will extend though next year and help Republicans hold or win back House, state and local seats in the 2022 midterms.

“Gathering signatures for the recall motivated a lot of people to contact the party,” Whitaker said. “With so many people calling us, and wanting to be involved, we just felt like we needed to seize the opportunity.”

The OC GOP is recruiting volunteers now for a new countywide precinct team made up of registered Republicans who, in Whitaker’s words, are “fed-up with losing ground in Orange County.” The strategy calls for appointing chairs who will oversee volunteer efforts in each of the county’s five Supervisor districts and 34 cities, plus one captain who will lead activists in each of the county’s 1,795 voting precincts. The idea is that the volunteers will knock on doors, make phone calls, attend community events and become “ambassadors for the Republican Party in their cities and neighborhoods.”

“It’s going back to the basics,” said Kelly Ernby, a Republican and a deputy district attorney who last year lost a bid for the 74th Assembly District seat.

“Boots on the ground is historically what wins elections.”

Candidates are asked about their interest in helping to target specific groups of voters, including veterans, Chinese Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Vietnamese Americans, religious groups and small business owners. Whitaker said the party is looking to match volunteers with outreach work that fits that individual’s passions and circles of influence.

The party also is collecting funds to buy gear for volunteers, cover expenses for team training and other events, and to reward high achievers.

Volunteers on a precinct team also are promised another perk: Access to local party leadership and GOP candidates.

“Donors always get the ability to meet with candidates and leadership,” Whitaker said. “We want to make sure our volunteers also have connections, with each other and with (elected officials) in their city.”

Ernby, who started a term on the OC GOP Central Committee in January, said she ran for the position in part because she believed the party needed to do a better job with its ground game. That’s why she’s leading the precinct team, which is now holding informational meetings and taking applications for various positions.

“We need to do a better job as the GOP. We can do better than in the past.”

In recent election cycles, the Democratic Party of Orange County has had a better local ground game, Ernby acknowledged. But she attributed that success to paid door knockers and cold callers — a claim that Rachel Potucek, spokeswoman for the local Democratic Party, disputed.

Potucek said it was Democratic volunteers, not paid workers, who knocked on more than 40,000 doors leading up to the March special election for the 2nd District Board of Supervisors seat  in which Democrat Katrina Foley defeated longtime GOP politician John Moorlach.

Democrats previously employed the same precinct team strategy now being launched by the GOP to target under-reached communities, Potucek said. But, these days, the county’s Democratic Party relies on a structure based around local Democratic clubs, which reach deep into local communities. In 2017, there were 16 such clubs in Orange County; today, there are 31.

“We’re seeing the impact of that approach,” Potucek said.

In 2018, Democrats flipped four local House seats, to sweep all seven congressional districts that touch Orange County. Then, in 2019, local voter registration turned blue for the first time in recent memory, shattering the county’s long-time reputation as a Republican stronghold. Since then, Democrats have continued to add to their local voter registration advantage, most recently flipping registration in the 74th Assembly District. (Countywide, as of April 29, Democrats held a 3% advantage over Republicans in terms of voter registration.)

The OC GOP has had some strong moments and cause to celebrate after the 2020 election. They won two House seats from Democrats, as Young Kim defeated Gil Cisneros in CA-39 and Michelle Steel beat Harley Rouda in CA-48. They also held their four local Assembly seats.

Whitaker attributes much of that success to training volunteers to use Campaign Sidekick, an app that helps Republicans canvas local districts by pulling contact information for potential voters from county voter rolls. He said the new precinct team will be trained to use the same program.

Republican volunteers get ready to canvass Irvine neighborhoods using the Campaign Sidekick app on Feb. 15, 2020, in support of Peggy Huang, center, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Katie Porter in the 2020 primary election. Orange County Republicans are aiming to up their ground game heading into the 2022 election. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

But Democrats in 2020 also flipped two state senate seats, with Josh Newman beating Ling Ling Chang while Dave Min beating Moorlach. And Democrats fared better at the local level in 2020, flipping 20 local seats from red to blue and winning a majority on local school boards for the first time.

Republicans took another hit after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, which was led by activists on the right. For several weeks after the insurrection, voters in Orange County surged away from the GOP, and Potucek said local Democratic Party offices were flooded with calls from volunteers who wanted to get involved.

Then Foley, a Democrat, beat Republican Moorlach in the special election to fill the Board of Supervisors seat left vacant when Steel won her bid for Congress.

Whitaker blames the loss on the fact that two other Republican candidates refused to drop out of the race, ignoring party pressure to do so. That, he said, split the GOP vote and gave the win to Foley. (Moorlach lost to Foley by about 12 percentage points, but GOP candidates combined to receive nearly 52% of the vote.)

But Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University, sees the loss as a sign that Whitaker and, by extension, the OC GOP, no longer wields the power to force candidates to set aside individual ambition for the sake of the party.

“The fact that three Republicans ran, to me, demonstrates that the (Republican) party is weakened,” Smoller said.

The state GOP got a gift in November, when Newsom attended a friend’s birthday dinner at the pricey Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry. Newsom’s appearance at the party violated some of his own health recommendations, and the GOP used the moment to revive a stagnated recall effort. Eventually, with a lot of help from Orange County activists, the GOP gathered enough valid signatures to get a Newman recall vote on an as-yet unscheduled special election ballot.

The OC GOP is, in Smoller’s view, “doing what a political party should be doing” by taking advantage of anti-Newsom enthusiasm to build a team of volunteers who might help in the midterms.

“The ground game is really important, particularly in local races,” Smoller said.

“But it’s not just about ground game,” he added. “Ultimately, you have to have ideas that people will rally behind.”

Smoller thinks the ideas driving enthusiasm to get the Newsom recall on the ballot — including complaints of government overreach and opposition to masks and beach closures — are already becoming “yesterday’s news” as California starts to reopen while boasting the lowest COVID-19 infection rates in the nation. He also cites the results of his own Chapman University study earlier this year, which showed most Orange County residents actually supported mask mandates, school closures and other efforts to stop the spread of the virus that were espoused by Newsom.

But even if some recall passion holds through this calendar year, Smoller is unconvinced it will carry through help to local GOP candidates in 2022, with solid Democratic challengers already lining up to gun for positions such as county District Attorney and Fifth District Supervisor.

“They’re on a train to nowhere with those issues,” Smoller said of the GOP.

Ernby, among others, disagrees. She believes the way Democratic leaders reacted to the pandemic perfectly illustrates the big-picture ideas that she said her party has always fought for.

“People are awake now and paying attention. And they understand now what the Republican Party has tried to articulate,” Ernby said, adding that the message boils to down to the importance of “small government, individual liberties and freedoms.”

She believes the current political moment is comparable to the early 1960s, when Republicans began to plant the seeds of the late 20th Century conservative movement at a time when Democrats seemed to have a lock on state and national politics.

“I do think history is going to repeat itself,” she said. “I think there will be a change.”

Source: Orange County Register

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