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Orange County Republicans hold in-person fundraisers even as coronavirus spreads

Several dozen people recently paid $75 each and boarded a chartered yacht in Newport Harbor to “mix and mingle” with area Republican politicians who are running in state and federal races in November.

Masks and temperature checks were required to get on the boat due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Saddleback Valley Republican Women’s Federated club, which organized the two-hour cruise on the evening of Thursday, July 23.

But once on board, the organization said masks were optional. Guests were free to socialize on the deck or interior rooms as they enjoyed appetizers and a cash bar.

In other words, the evening looked much like a typical campaign event that Republican and Democratic candidates from throughout the country have held to raise money and build their brands in well-heeled Orange County for decades.

Only this election cycle is anything but typical. And while national protests about racial injustice are widely attended by Democrats, local face-to-face political gatherings have a partisan GOP lean.

Both political events could have health implications. Coronavirus cases are surging in Orange County, with the number of positive cases up 37% from two weeks earlier. That’s prompted local Democratic candidates and some Republicans to stick with virtual campaign events, even with the election less than 100 days away.

But a number of GOP candidates are opting to continue with in-person events, from the yacht mixer to a fundraiser at a local car dealership to a backyard party featuring bourbon and cigars.

Candidates say they’re being cautious while holding in-person fundraisers. They reduce capacity, move events outdoors when possible, and encourage distancing.

“The number of events have been very limited and I expect them to stay that way for some time,” said Laguna Niguel Mayor Laurie Davies, a Republican running for the 73rd Assembly District in southern Orange County and a featured guest of the Newport Harbor cruise.

But such events still raise flags for health experts. Even small outdoor gatherings, they note, have triggered virus outbreaks — particularly when alcohol is flowing and masks are optional.

“I’m right there with everyone else in wanting to get out and socialize,” said Steffanie Strathdee, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UC San Diego.

“But if you’re socializing with people other than your immediate family, and you’re not sure if those people have been sequestered in place, you’re putting yourself and your entire family and community at risk.”

In-person campaign events where masks aren’t required also raise flags for some GOP insiders, who say the message being sent is out of step with most voters.

“They’re actually reinforcing a lot of negative stereotypes that I think exist about the Republican party,” said Mike Madrid, a veteran Republican strategist who co-founded the Lincoln Project, aimed at defeating President Donald Trump in November and pushing Trumpism out of the GOP. 

Madrid noted a new survey by Public Policy Institute of California shows about three in four Californians support wearing masks and worry about getting the virus, and that those feelings are strongest among educated voters who are common across Orange County. By ignoring that reality, Madrid said candidates are not only jeopardizing public health, but they’re harming their campaigns.

“They’re catering to a minority of a minority party,” he said. “These are losing campaigns because they’re not speaking to anyone beyond their base.”

After months of brushing aside recommendations from public health officials — and mocking some people who work masks — Trump recently started wearing a mask during some public appearances. He also canceled some in-person campaign events. But the Republican Party of Orange County still regularly promotes in-person events for local candidates.

The OCGOP didn’t respond to requests to discuss the safety of such gatherings or what they believe such events say about the party’s messaging during the pandemic.

The local GOP promoted two “debt retirement” receptions last week to help Supervisor Don Wagner pay down $80,000 in campaign debt, including a $60,000 loan from himself and $25,000 in unpaid bills he accumulated during a successful reelection bid in the March 3 primaries. Donors had to give at least $250 to attend one of the events, which were held in the home of a Laguna Beach supporter. The event flier stated “Covid-conscious social distancing” would be in place and that space was limited, though there was no mention of masks.

Wagner didn’t respond to a request to comment.

The latest OGOP email advertised in-person fundraisers for 74th Assembly District candidate Diane Dixon and for 45th Congressional District challenger Greg Raths, who were both booked for the yacht mixer. Raths’ campaign didn’t answer questions about these events. Dixon’s campaign noted that events have been moved outdoors for health reasons, but didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

Face-to-face political gatherings appear to violate state health orders.

On March 16, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health ordered all non-essential gatherings to be postponed or canceled until further notice. That includes indoor and outdoor events where people are brought together in a single space at the same time, whether it’s for professional, social or community purposes.

State officials on June 18 also issued a statewide mask mandate, requiring Californians to wear masks when in indoor public spaces or outdoor public spaces where they won’t be at least six feet apart from others. And both mandates were reiterated in a July 13 order from Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the state health department.

Enforcement of these policies has been extremely limited, though, with Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes stating he wouldn’t police the mask ordinance except for “egregious violations.”

Some major local Republican candidates are so far sticking with virtual events.

That includes State Sen. Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, who’s hosting a virtual reception with former Congressman Ed Royce in August.

House GOP challengers Young Kim, in CA-39, and Michelle Steel, in CA-48, also are avoiding in-person events, per their campaigns.

Davies said she’s also been doing most of her campaigning via Zoom, which she said let her safely connect with more constituents. But she does have a fundraiser planned for late August at a home in Laguna Hills.

Lincoln Project backer Madrid said sophisticated political campaigns can look at polls on these issues and stick to digital outreach. He’s running a national campaign from his office, he noted.

But he said there’s a feeling of “martyrdom” among Trump Republicans in doing something — not wearing masks — that’s marginalized by Democrats, the scientific community, the media and others they’ve painted as enemies. And when they gather at events like the yacht mixer, in what was once a Republican stronghold, he said they’re in an echo chamber with others who reinforce that sense of “moral righteousness.”

While in-person campaign events skew right, Democrats have largely given a pass to social distancing and bans on gathering when it comes to social justice protests that have swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The reason, participants and defenders say, is that police brutality is also a life-or-death issue that justifies risks from the pandemic.

While masks are common at such protests, they’re not ubiquitous. And research shows protests have contributed to spreading coronavirus, though not nearly to the extent many feared.

They’re also aren’t any reported cases of political events in California triggering outbreaks.

But relaxing social distancing and mask wearing will almost certainly trigger more spikes in cases and an endless loop of shutdowns, said UC San Diego epidemiologist Strathdee, who documented her husband’s battle with another superbug in her book “The Perfect Predator.”

“You have to think larger than yourself at this point,” she said.

“If we hold on a little longer, we won’t just flatten the curve, we’ll crush it.”

Source: Orange County Register

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