The coronavirus has halted many of the events and activities that local Republicans and Democrats traditionally use to drive up their registration numbers, but it hasn’t stopped Orange County from continuing to turn blue.
In the 49th Congressional District, which straddles south Orange County and north San Diego County, the registration advantage recently flipped, with Democrats now holding a slight lead over Republicans. Same thing happened in the Board of Supervisor’s 3rd District. And based on recent registration numbers, four other state and federal legislative districts in Orange County that currently have slight GOP majorities are on track to show a Democratic edge before the Nov. 3 election.
All of these changes have come in the wake of last August’s historic flip of countywide registration from red to blue.
Now, for many, the question is this: What will it mean for November and beyond?
Last summer, when Orange County made national news as the former Republican stronghold that had become majority Democrat, local GOP officials noted the Democrats’ gains were coming in districts that were already deeply blue, such as CA-46, which includes much of central Orange County.
At the time, Republicans were still optimistic that they could hold their traditional majorities in places such as CA-49, and potentially flip those House seats back to red this November.
That’s still possible, of course. Voter registration suggests, but doesn’t dictate, which way an election will go. Several districts in Orange County had more registered Republicans than Democrats when voters favored Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and elected Democrats to the House in 2018.
What’s more, registration data show both major parties adding local voters, slowing a generation long trend in which No Party Preference gained political market share. In the past year, Democrats in the county have added about 61,000 new voters and Republicans have picked up about 20,000.
There is also recent evidence that GOP candidates can win in Democrat-majority districts, even in usually liberal California. Last month, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, flipped the 25th District in Los Angeles County from blue to red, winning a special election by about 10 points.
Also, the recent registration gains for Democrats haven’t been unassailable. In the city of Westminster, over the past year, party registration flipped from red to blue, only to flip back again. The most recent switch came on a surge of GOP registration amid a contentious recall election that saw three Republican council members keep their seats.
This year, both parties will have to find new ways to gain or keep a numerical advantage.
Local Republicans typically see a summertime bump in registration thanks to a strong presence at the OC Fair. But during a virtual rally held Saturday, June 13, local GOP party chair Fred Whitaker noted that this year’s fair has been cancelled, due to pandemic, so they’ll have to find other ways to reach potential voters.
That’s also true for left-leaning activists.
Democrats in the county say their use of Instagram and other social media has helped keep the local blue wave flowing, even as some key ways to register new voters — door knocking and other traditional face-to-face activities — have been halted by coronavirus.
And a new phenomenon — the protests that have swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death May 25 at the hands of Minnesota police officers — also seems to be helping Democrats.
Tanya Navarro, a 23-year-old activist from Santa Ana who worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, said lots of young people have been showing up to protests with the Secretary of State’s Democracy at Work QR code loaded on their cell phones. They use it to direct potential voters to the department’s online registration portal.
Navarro said most of these activists are in high school or their early 20s, and not affiliated with any party or nonprofit organization. Most also are otherwise avoiding gatherings during the pandemic, believing what disease experts say about the spread of coronavirus.
But Navarro said these same activists feel it’s worth the risk to attend the protests because, down the road, many believe they might be saving a person of color’s life.
The political vibe at the protests leans toward Democrats.
Navarro said she’s helped some Republicans switch their registration to independent or Democrat. Often, Navarro said those former Republicans bring up immigration, saying that seeing children in cages at the Mexican border was a “last straw.” Others, she said, are religious and have told her they don’t feel like President Donald Trump represents their values.
Adam Berkowitz, campaign manager for Democratic Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, said he sees the 49th District’s registration flip as evidence that “voters are rejecting Trump’s failure to lead on the coronavirus, racial injustice, and every other challenge we’re facing.”
In 2018, when Levin was easily elected, Republicans still had a three-point advantage in the district. By February of this year, the GOP edge was 1.2 points. On Wednesday, June 17, the GOP edge was gone; Democrats had a 0.5-point lead, with nearly 2,000 more voters than Republicans.
Still, Berkowitz isn’t viewing a registration trend as destiny.
“This is a closely contested district, and it will remain that way,” he said. “We are working to earn every vote.”
Likewise, Patrick Snow, campaign manager for Levin’s Republican challenger, Brian Maryott, said they weren’t discouraged by the numbers.
“From the day Brian announced his run for Congress, we knew it would be a closely-contested race in a competitive swing district,” Snow said. “Whether it’s a 1% GOP voter registration advantage or a 1% Dem advantage, we like our chances. And we know that Brian has the common sense ideas that will resonate with voters in November.”
In the county Board of Supervisor’s 3rd District, Republicans led by just under 1% when Don Wagner was reelected during the March 3 primary. Now, Democrats leads by 0.5% or nearly 2,000 voters. That makes three of the five districts blue.
The once-solidly red 37th Senate District may also flip before Republican State Sen. John Moorlach of Costa Mesa squares off with Democrat Dave Min of Irvine on the Nov. 3 ballot. The GOP led by 2.2 points there in February, but now leads by just 0.7 percentage points.
In the Assembly, the embattled 72nd District — where voters in March ousted the Republican incumbent Tyler Diep amid criticism that he’d strayed too far from the right — has slightly bolstered its Republican advantage, moving from a 0.8 percentage point lead in February to a one-point lead today. But both the 68th and 74th Assembly districts are steadily advancing toward a Democratic majority.
The 45th House District, which stretches from Irvine to Mission Viejo and north through Anaheim, is also inching closer to becoming blue.
Republicans had a nearly six-point advantage when Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, was elected in 2018. And her challenger, Republican Greg Raths of Mission Viejo, still regularly characterizes the district that way, saying during a GOP rally Saturday, “This is a very, very Republican district.”
But as of February, the GOP edge in CA-45 had slipped to 2.7 points. And as of Wednesday, June 17, Republicans had the edge by 1.2 percentage points.
If that pace continues, the district will flip to blue around October. And if that happens, CA-48 — which includes much of the coast — would be the only congressional district in Orange County where the GOP holds a registration majority.
For some observers, the registration shifts in Orange County boil down to one factor: changes in the GOP that have come with the rise of Trump.
“These districts might possibly be in play if anyone besides Trump was on the ticket,” said Matthew Jarvis, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. But he said suburban, college-educated Republicans — a type of voter that once defined much of Orange County — are largely rejecting Trumpism. “With him there, (the House seats) should remain blue.”
What happens to the Republican party after Trump leaves office, this term or next, will determine what disaffected OC Republicans do next, Jarvis said.
“They might come back after Trump,” Jarvis said. “Or, if Trumpism remains a dominant force in the GOP, they could eventually leave the party.”
Source: Orange County Register