Democrats are hoping what some call the "Trump effect" will cost as many as four local Republicans their seats in Congress.
“There's no question the political landscape in Orange County has changed dramatically. None of these (four) politicians can count on an automatic re-election,” said Dan Schnur, a political science professor at the University of Southern California and the former communications director for Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.
It began in November when Orange County residents, for the first time since 1936, cast more ballots for a Democrat for president than they did for the Republican candidate.
The "Trump effect" helped Democrats in a number of local races, fueling high turnout among Latinos and Democrats opposed to then-GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, and depressed turnout among Republicans. That helped Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton retake the 65th Assembly district for her party, and led to a close call for 16-year Republican incumbent Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista.
Now Democrats are hoping to target four traditionally safe OC Republican seats in 2018, when they try to take control of the House of Representatives.
Republicans currently control the House 237 to 193, with 5 vacancies.
In Orange County, Democrats see a chance to unseat longtime Republican incumbents in Congressional districts that voted for Hillary Clinton: 45th District Rep. Mimi Walters of Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa Rep. Dana berthrabacher’s 48th District, Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton in the 39th District and Issa’s 49th District.
Nationwide, Clinton won just eight Congressional districts that President Barack Obama lost, according to the Washington Post, with Walters’ and Rohrabacher’s districts among them.
Orange County’s shift is part of a statewide decline in GOP registration that has persisted for the past three decades.
Once known as one of the most conservative counties in the country, Orange County Republicans have slowly lost their edge over Democrats, maintaining just a 4 percent advantage in voter registration in the 2016 general election. Independents have also become a larger share of registered voters, at 24.3 percent.
The county has also become more ethnically diverse; with an ever-growing number of Latino and Asian American voters changing the county’s partisan equation. According to the 2010 Census, 33 percent of the population is Latino and 18 percent is Asian American.
Schnur said Trump also presented another challenge for Republicans. While Orange County has changed a lot, Republicans have been able to rely on their party’s infrastructure and deep roots in the county to keep their electoral edge.
“It may not be as deep red, but most of the county's voters will be more inclined to vote Republican,” Schnur said. “Donald Trump's candidacy created a different kind of shift because he's been more successful with working class voters rather than the traditional Republican [base].”
Nowhere was a “safe” Republican caught sleeping like in the 49th Congressional district, where Issa has long relied on middle- to upper-income white Republicans. The district is mostly in San Diego County but includes the southern tip of OC.
Issa squeaked by with a 0.6 percent lead over Democrat and retired Marine Col. Doug Applegate after winning eight previous elections by wide margins. Issa won in part because of heavy support in Orange County.
Issa, an early Trump supporter and best known for his zealous investigations into Democrats and the Obama White House as chair of the House Oversight Committee, has since distanced himself from the President by calling for an independent probe into Russia’s role in the election and for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself.
A new data set analyzed and released by the Sacramento-based political consulting company, Political Data, Inc, gives a glimpse of some of the factors at play in this past election.
In all four districts, turnout among Republicans fell by up to 10 percent while Democrats’ and Independents’ share of the vote increased.
Tyler Law, national spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a telephone interview that events since the election bode well for Democrats. He cited Trump’s low approval rating – currently at 44.5 percent, according to an average of ten national polls by RealClear Politics – and the fact that the president’s party typically loses seats in their first midterm election.
“Some Republicans have tried to make the case that tying House Republicans to Donald Trump did not work everywhere,” said Law. “But he was just a candidate. Now he’s president, they will have a voting record that matches his agenda, and they’re going to have to answer to that.”
But Jack Pandol, western regional press secretary for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in an email "the Democratic Party is predictably recycling the same strategy that failed miserably last cycle. Our Republican candidates are well-established with their own individual identities as fighters for Southern California, and that's why they'll continue to win in 2018-just as they have in every cycle."
Royce now faces a district that is 46 percent minority. Latino and Asian voters made up 44 percent of all the ballots cast in November, according to data analyzed by Political Data, Inc.
All four districts saw a growth in Latino turnout compared to previous elections, but Royce’s district saw the greatest surge. Latinos made up 24 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election, compared to 17 percent in 2014, a seven point difference.
Still, how much resources and manpower Democrats pour into these races will determine whether or not they can turn a county where most local elected officials, and the heft of local campaign donors, still lean Republican.
“Historically, Democratic turnout drops in midterm elections,” said Schnur, who added that historical precedents have not seemed to matter when it comes to Trump. “Trump may provide an added incentive, but it would be a historical aberration.”
It also depends on how much time Republican incumbents devote to their districts.
Already, all four representatives have been bombarded by protests at their local congressional offices in response to President Trump’s executive orders on immigration and his pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
So far, Issa is the only Orange County congressman to hold a town hall, with one on Saturday drawing a crowd of nearly 500 people.
“Walters and Royce devoted a tremendous amount of time to their districts so they may be better protected,” said Schnur. “Issa and Rohrabacher, their political futures may have less to do with their districts and more to do with their own political identities.”
While minority voters have tended to help Democrats, Royce’s office and the local Republican party have made concerted efforts to reach out to Asian American voters countywide.
It’s also unclear whether Democrats will be able to recruit strong candidates to run.
Rohrabacher, who was first elected in 1988, Royce and Walters have been strong incumbents and each finished the Nov. 2016 election ahead by more than 14 points.
Applegate has said he will run against Issa again next year, and another Democrat, Mike Levin, has also thrown his hat into the ring. Ron Varasteh, who ran against Walters in November and lost by 17 points, will also run again.
At least three Democrats have said they want to run for Rohrabacher's seat: Boyd Roberts, Harley Rouda and Laura Oatman. Former county GOP chair Scott Baugh and county Supervisor Michelle Park Steel, also a Republican, are said to be waiting for Rohrabacher’s retirement to run for his seat.
“There’s no question that these will be competitive races and folks on the ground recognize the opportunity to bring some much-needed change,” said Law. “It’s still very early in the cycle but we’re confident that there will be great candidates in these districts.”
Republican political strategist Jon Fleischman, who writes an online newsletter called The Flash Report, said many of these early predictions are just political posturing by both parties.
“The Republicans put out the list of people they’re targeting, the Democrats put out their list…and a year from now, we’ll find out if they’re serious,” said Fleischman. “That said, if you’re a Republican member of Congress in a district that voted for Clinton, that should be a wake-up call that you should be spending more time in your district.”
While it’s too early to tell, Fleischman says Trump’s success will be crucial for every Republican.
“If a year from now, we’re not getting a legislative agenda through Congress, and [Trump isn’t] able to talk about successes, I think there’s a reason for every Republican to be concerned about 2018,” said Fleischman.
Correction: A previous version of this article said "no Democratic challengers have so far emerged in the three other races." Voice of OC regrets the error.
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