Four Orange County Congressional Districts that pundits predict will be competitive races in November’s national election fight to control the House of Representatives have been flooded with 32 candidates as Democrats target the Republican-held seats and gear up for the June primary.
“It’s unbelievable, the record breaking numbers of candidates,” Orange County Democratic Party Chairwoman Fran Sdao said. “We typically have a hard time finding a Democrat to run, so this year we have the opposite problem.”
Democrats need to take at least 24 House seats throughout the country in order to win control. Currently, the House has 239 Republicans, 193 Democrats and three vacancies. The June 5 primary will narrow the Orange County field to the top two vote getters in each Congressional district, regardless of political party.
Real Clear Politics Senior Elections Analyst Sean Trende said the increasing Latino vote could help the Democrats this year, along with a general shift away from Republicans since the election of President Donald Trump.
“Part of it is the increasing Hispanic presence in Orange County and part of it is upper income whites, especially in the age of Trump, are drifting away from Republicans,” Trende said, adding that the voter shift is a national trend.
Real Clear Politics is a news website and aggregator which focuses on Federal policy, national elections and international news.
The historically Republican Orange County stronghold districts of the 36th, 45th, 48th and 49th all voted for Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 -- a complete turnaround from 2012, when all four districts voted for GOP Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
It was the first time a Democrat won the county’s overall presidential vote in 80 years when the county backed Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1936, the middle of the Great Depression.
But the flood of Democratic challengers in the county could hurt the party’s chance at winning the seats if the campaigns become aggressive and split the Democratic vote heading into the primaries, a problem which may linger into November, Trende said.
Still, it could be Trump’s job approval rating that might help Democrats win the House in 2018.
“With him (Trump) having his job approval 40 (percent) or below over his term, that typically causes the party in power to lose registration and support,” Trende said.
Meanwhile, Sdao said the Democrats’ registration numbers have been steadily rising.
“Here we are in Orange County, a Republican county and our voter registration numbers have surged in the last several years. We’re down to about a 3 percent difference between registered Republicans and Democrats,” Sdao said in a phone interview.
Voters opting for no political party make up nearly 25 percent of the county’s roughly 1.5 million registered voters, according to the county Registrar of Voters statistics updated in December.
Traditionally, no political party voters have tended to support Republicans.
Republican county chairman Fred Whitaker didn’t respond to several requests for an interview. The California GOP didn’t respond to interview requests either.
The Cook Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball classify the coastal 48th and south county’s 49th districts as tossups, while the south-central 25th district is lean Republican, giving the GOP a slight edge in the upcoming vote.
Both the Cook Report and Crystal Ball listed the north Orange County 39th district as leaning Republican until Monday when Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. After Royce's announcement, the Cook Report reclassified the district as "leaning Democrat" while the Crystal Ball labeled the district as a "toss up." Additionally, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) is facing two Republican challengers for his 48th district seat.
The Cook Report and Crystal Ball are websites that regularly analyze presidential and competitive U.S. House and Senate races, along with Gubernatorial races. Both websites score competitive Congressional Districts based on potential voter leanings after analyzing the data of past elections.
According to the Crystal Ball, Republicans have 38 seats in competitive races nationally and 16 of those are toss-ups. The Cook Report says 48 Republican seats across the country will be competitive races, with 17 of those toss-up districts.
Since 2012, voter turnout during primaries generally is around 25 percent for each of the four Congressional districts, but voter participation in three districts climbed over 40 percent and the 48th district had over half of its registered voters turnout for the 2016 primaries. Presidential election years, like 2016, generally draw more voters than off years, like this year. The final day for candidates to file is March 9.
The no preference voters could be a wildcard in the races because their numbers average about 25 percent of each district.
“A lot of them are young people who are new voters that don’t want to pick,” Sdao said, adding the Democrats are reaching out to them.
“This is not just unique to Orange County. This is happening all over the country,” Sdao said of the surge in voter turnout.
A Voice of OC analysis of voter data and trends goes back to 2012, following the statewide Congressional redistricting. All campaign finance data, unless otherwise noted, was collected up to Sept. 30, the most recent available information from the Federal Election Commission.
The 49th District; Southern Orange County and Western San Diego County
Both the Cook Report and the Crystal Ball consider the district a toss up. The district is home to nearly 400,000 registered voters, according to the February 2017 voter registration report from the California Secretary of State, the most recent available.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) of the 49th Congressional District was reelected in 2016 by less than one percentage point. The district touches the most southern cities in the county, including San Juan Capistrano, Dana Point and San Clemente. The 49th also stretches down the west side of San Diego county, ending before La Jolla.
According to the voter registration report, Republicans still hold the district at 37 percent, while Democrats are at 31 percent. The no preference voters hold the wildcard at 25 percent. Voter registration data shows an uptick in Democrats since 2012’s 28.57 percent, while Republicans dropped from 40 percent.
Like the other districts, 2016 saw a huge increase in voter turnout for the primary election in the 49th District. Just over 46 percent of voters turned out, compared to 29 percent in both 2014 and 2012.
The Democratic candidate, former Marine Corps Colonel Doug Applegate garnered 49.7 percent of the vote in 2016, while Issa received 50.3 percent.
As of the most recent reports, Issa had the most money, $852,000 remaining out of the $1.2 million he has raised. He’s followed by Democratic candidate Mike Levin who had $530,000 on hand out of the $918,000 he brought in. Applegate had $263,000 of the $545,000 he took in while Democratic challenger Paul Kerr had $229,000 left from the $504,000 he raised.
The 48th District; Coastal Orange County
Like the southernmost district, the 48th is classified as a tossup by both the Crystal Ball and the Cook Report. But unlike Issa’s extremely close race, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) had no problem defeating his opponent in 2016, winning by a nearly 17 point margin.
The district spans the coastal cities of Orange County from Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel and stretches east into parts of Westminster and Garden Grove. It also includes Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Newport Beach, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Beach.
Although the district voted for Clinton in 2016, Republicans have 41 percent of the 406,000 registered voters. Democrats are clocking in at just under 30 percent, while no preference voters sit at 24 percent, according to the voter registration report.
In 2012 and 2014 the turnout for primaries in the district was 25 percent. However, in 2016 voter turnout was nearly 57 percent.
The 48th had the least amount of money coming into the candidates out of the four districts so far.
Rohrabacher led with $856,000 raised, while having $600,000 on hand. Democratic challenger Harley Rouda Jr. raised a little over $600,000 and had nearly $373,000 on hand while Democrat Hans Keirstead raised almost $470,000 and ended September with $302,000 on hand. Democratic challenger Omar Siddiqui raised $322,000 had $308,000 left.
Of the nine challengers for Rohrabacher’s House seat, five are Democrats, two are Republicans, one has no party affiliation and one is a Libertarian. Former Assemblyman Scott Baugh is one of the Republican challengers and raised only $139 through “other receipts” last year, but has nearly $550,000 left over from 2016. Baugh’s finance data reflects all of 2017.
The 39th District; Northern Orange County and parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties
The 39th Congressional District was leaning Republican, making it a competitive race, according to the Cook Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. After Royce's retirement announcement Jan. 8, the Cook Report reclassified the district as "leaning Democrat" while the Crystal Ball labeled it a "toss up."
Royce easily beat Democratic candidate Brett Murdock in 2016 with a margin of nearly 15 points, continuing a trend of winning by wide margins since 2012.
The 39th district consists of the most northern portion of Orange County from parts of Buena Park, Placentia and Anaheim Hills and contains all of Yorba Linda, Brea, La Habra and Fullerton while reaching north to parts of neighboring Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.
While the district spans three different counties and has 367,000 registered voters, the bulk of voters are in Orange County at 227,000, according to the voter registration report.
The Republicans hold a slight edge in the district with 36 percent of the electorate, followed by the Democrats at 34 percent. Democrats in the 39th district have experienced slow voter growth since 2012 when they had 32 percent, while Republicans show a decline from 40 percent the same year No preference voters make up nearly 26 percent of the district, up from 23 percent in 2012.
The 39th District also experienced a big turnout for the 2016 primaries with nearly 42 percent of the electorate voting. The 2014 off-year primary had far less participation with just under 20 percent of voters showing up to the polls and the 2012 presidential year had a slightly better turnout at 25 percent.
While there’s eight challengers for Royce’s seat, two have yet to raise any money. Royce had the biggest war chest by far with $3.4 million on hand and managed to raise $1.6 million in 2017. He spent over $1 million between last January and September.
Democratic Challenger Andy Thorburn had the biggest war chest of the challengers, having loaned himself $2 million. He still has $1.9 million on hand.
Mai-Khanh Tran, another Democratic candidate, raised over $600,000 last year and had just under $500,000 on hand.
Democratic candidate Gil Cisneros raised $732,000 and had $486,000 on hand.
Outside of one independent candidate and a no-party candidate, all challengers are Democrats.
The 45th District; Southeast Orange C0unty
According to the Crystal Ball and the Cook Report, the 45th district leans Republican. Like Rohrabacher, Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) enjoyed a landslide, 17-point win over her opponent in 2016. There are at least six Democratic challengers gunning for the Walter’s seat.
The district sits mostly on the southeast side of Orange County and includes Irvine, Mission Viejo, Rancho Santa Margarita, Laguna Hills and portions of Laguna Woods, Villa Park, Orange, Anaheim Hills and Tustin.
Like the other three districts, the Republicans hold the the largest share of the electorate at just under 40 percent, while Democrats hover at just over 30 percent of the 412,000 registered voters, according to the voter registration report. No preference voters account for 25 percent of the district.
The data shows a shift in voting attitudes and party affiliation could be happening in the 45th District. In 2012, Republicans made up nearly 45 percent of the electorate, while Democrats had just under 28 percent. The no preference voters were at just over 23 percent.
As with nearly every district in the state in 2016, the 45th district had a surge in voter participation for the primary election when 43 percent of the registered voters showed up in the polls. In 2014 the district had 23 percent of voters show up and 2012 had just over 25 percent.
Walters raised more than three times more than any of the candidates in the district with $1.5 million and had $1.4 million on hand as of September. She left Democratic challenger Katherine Porter far behind at $474,000 raised with $356,000 on hand. Two other Democratic challengers are on Porter’s heels: Brian Forde built up nearly $470,00, with $359,000 on hand and David Min managed to get $466,000 and had $319,000 on hand.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.