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Billionaire Democrat and environmentalist Tom Steyer, who announced last week he would pour $30 million into ten states toward mobilizing millennial voters, said part of those efforts will focus on Orange County, where the fate of four congressional seats could determine the direction of the House of Representatives.

“This county [Orange County] is possibly the single most significant county in terms of controlling the House of Representatives,” said Steyer, who was interviewed by Voice of OC reporters Jan. 12 while he was in Orange County.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried 23 congressional districts nationwide that are represented by Republicans, a third of them in California and four in Orange County. Those districts now are targeted by Democrats, who need to flip 24 seats across the country if they want to regain control of the House.

Incumbents in two of those Orange County seats, Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) of the 39th district and Darrell Issa (R-Vista) of the 49th district, this month announced they would not run for reelection in 2018.

Steyer – who is known for his ad campaign calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump – is the founder of NextGen America, which supports candidates calling for action on climate change.

NextGen announced last week it would launch a $30 million grassroots organizing program across ten states with the goal of mobilizing millennials to vote in the 2018 midterm election. According to a press release, the initiative, NextGen Rising, has pledged to hire at least 200 full-time organizers and train 2,000 volunteers at college campuses and in communities across the country.

“If you think about the federal government, we’re clearly not going to get a Democratic government in 2018,” said Steyer.  “It’s going to be pretty hard to flip the Senate. So when you think about changing Washington, D.C. in a meaningful way, the highest likelihood is the House.”

Millennials (age 18 to 35) make up 35 percent of California adults, the largest population by age group, according to an analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California. Generation X (age 36 to 52) makes up 30 percent of the population, followed by baby boomers (age 53 to 71) at 26 percent and the silent generation (age 72-89) at 8 percent.

Despite that advantage, only 60 percent of millennials and 59 percent of generation X are registered to vote, compared to 78 percent of baby boomers and 89 percent of the silent generation, according to the PPIC analysis, which is based on eight statewide surveys between Sept. 2016 and July 2017.

Millennials also are the least likely to vote at 32 percent, compared to 41 percent of generation X, 64 percent of baby boomers and 77 percent of the silent generation, according to the PPIC report.

Millennials also are the most liberal, most likely to identify as independents, and more likely to be non-white.

“This is the largest group of potential voters in the United States and they’re the most diverse group and progressive group,” said Steyer. “The idea that we’re going to have the largest group of voters by age participating at a fraction of everyone else is a danger for American democracy.”

Steyer said his organization’s efforts will be focused on door-to-door outreach, organizing on college campuses – half of which will be community colleges — and contacting voters through text messages and social media. In the past, the group has targeted “sporadic” democratic voters, people who have only voted occasionally in past elections.

“What we see from all the work we’ve done with millennials is that they’re engaged, they may be super passionate, but they don’t believe in the system,” said Steyer. “The question for them is, ‘why would I participate in a system I don’t believe in, does my vote really matter?’”

Steyer acknowledged the state’s diverse population presents challenges, but said his organization is developing a network of community partners, in different ethnic communities and across different languages, to help bridge that gap.

“Human contact with someone you feel comfortable with increases dramatically the likelihood that you feel connected to the political system, which increases dramatically the likelihood you’ll participate at the polls,” said Steyer. “When you look at California, people aren’t participating because they were shut out or they felt left out.”

So far, NextGen America has not made any specific monetary commitments in Orange County or to the local Democratic party. Steyer said the group has yet to back any specific Democratic candidates and will focus on voter mobilization rather than taking sides.

“For the primary, I think we’ll only take a stand if there’s a specific reason. We’ve tried not to play D on D,” Steyer said. “We’ve done it when there’s a Democrat we don’t actually think is a Democrat…but in general we’re going to be spending our time making sure people participate.”

But Democrats face a challenge with the large number of candidates running for each seat.

In California, the top two vote-getters from the June primary election, regardless of party affiliation, go to a runoff in the November general election.

For example, in Royce’s district, seven Democrats (Andy Thorburn, Mai Khanh Tran, Gil Cisneros, Sam Jammal, Phil Janowicz, Ted Rusk, and Jay Chen) and four Republicans (former State Assemblywoman Young Kim, former state Senator Bob Huff, Supervisor Shawn Nelson and La Mirada city Councilman Andrew Sarega) have filed to run for the seat.

Steyer acknowledged the numerous Democratic candidates could split the majority of votes, leaving Republicans as the top two vote-getters.

“It’s possible that the Democrats could add up to 70 percent and two Republicans would be in the runoff,” said Steyer. “If nobody emerges with more name recognition, if no one emerges with more organization, if no one emerges with an ability to reach voters, you can get some strange outcomes from top two primaries.”

Another challenge is most of the Democratic candidates have no political or government experience, a frustration that Steyer says he has heard from local party leaders.

“Republicans have done a better job of organizing for these local races – I take the point,” said Steyer. “What we’re seeing is a different response than ‘I want to be a political professional for all my life.’”

Steyer believes the surge of candidates is in response to a unique moment in American history.

“2018 is a fight for the soul of America and that’s what those people are saying by running for Congress. They’re saying, I’ve never been political but…all of my values as an American have never been directly threatened before,” Steyer said. “And it’s very similar to signing up in 1941, they just bombed us, what am I going to do? I’m going to do something. It’s hard to be mad at people who have that instinct.”

Contact Thy  Vo at tvo@voiceofoc.org or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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