Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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Hundreds of Orange County Democrats today are expected to pour into the San Juan Capistrano Community Center for a spirited debate over the future of candidates vying for three of the region’s four contested congressional seats.

The big question facing these party activists is whether they should quickly narrow a large field of untested first time candidates or let them fight it out throughout the primary and see who comes out on top.

Orange County Democratic Chairwoman Fran Sdao is pushing for a quick consensus, worried that too many candidates won’t just crowd the field for the June primary but divide the Democratic fundraising base.

While there is no formal party effort to narrow the field, Sdao wants to see a consensus around candidates as quickly as possible and she isn’t being shy about it.

“Would we like to have no more than two (one Democrat vs. one Republican in June)? Absolutely,” Sdao told me.

Sdao is worried about a scenario where Democrats garner 70 percent of the vote in the June primary but instead watch two Republicans move to the general election because the Democrats’ votes are split and in the California’s primary, the top two move forward.

“Republicans seem to be more disciplined about this stuff,” Sdao said.

Yet that kind of discipline seems to irk many of the Democratic candidates I’ve seen throughout numerous gatherings this early campaign season. These candidates are looking forward to as many chances to talk to potential supporters, donors and voters as possible.

They’re honing their game.

Now, as a journalist, there’s nothing better to watch than a good old fashioned, political knife fight, especially over a congressional seat.

Good brawls often hone better candidates.

How else do you develop the needed campaign skills for a general election without testing your skills during a contested primary season?

Who could have predicted that a black politician with the middle name of Hussein would unseat a former First Lady in primary battles leading up to the Democratic Party nomination back in 2008?

This weekend’s endorsement caucus is the first step in the endorsement process of California Democratic Party in races for congress and state office, which culminates next month during the state convention in San Diego.

This weekend, caucuses will occur all over the state and the party’s network of local Democratic clubs have a large influence over the voting. There are three regional caucus meetings in Orange County alone where about two-dozen Democratic clubs are represented. Orange County currently has four Republican congressional seats. Three of those districts, the 45th, 48th and 49th will be up for discussion at the San Juan Capistrano meeting. The fourth seat, the 39th District, is in north Orange County.

If you haven’t met the candidates, it’s a good chance to meet them or at minimum, hear them.

Typically, each candidate will get two minutes to make a speech and then a public vote is taken.

“It’s all there, in public, out loud,” Sdao said. “Everybody knows who everybody votes for.”

Any candidate who can win 70 percent of votes cast in these pre-endorsement caucuses this weekend gets put on the consent calendar for an automatic party endorsement at the state convention next month in San Diego.

Now, this kind of early party activist meeting is usually a yawner, especially in Orange County Democratic circles, as the pickings for candidates to go up against the Republican machine are usually pretty slim.

Not so this year.

There’s about a half dozen Democratic candidates for every one of the four congressional seats up for grabs in Orange County this year.

Our reporter, Spencer Custodio, wrote up a great primer on the races letting you know the players and the districts.

Since two incumbents, Ed Royce, R-Fullerton in the 39th Congressional District and Darrell Issa, R-Vista in the 49th Congressional District announced plans to not seek re-election, the flood gates on candidates, especially on the Republican side of the aisle has opened up and the races have become even more high profile.

Today, we are also launching a special elections page, with a special emphasis on these congressional races – given their national significance.

It’s our goal to make these pages a one-stop shop for coverage on the races from all outlets, while also featuring archived information on each district and candidate as well as our own coverage.

Saturday’s events mark the real start of the election calendar so count on our newsroom to keep you abreast of relevant deadlines, issues and players.

For example, the most important primary for these young congressional campaigns is the upcoming Jan. 31 fundraising filing deadline, where we all get to see how much money and what kinds of donors these candidates have put together.

That should go a long way toward telling us all who will really have the staying power to stick around through the state convention in February, the March candidate filing deadline and potentially the June primary.

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