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The 45th Congressional District likely will see Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) face off against a Democrat in the November general election because she’s the only Republican running in the June 5 primary against four Democrats and one no party preference candidate.

“The issue is that none of these four (Democrats) really have much name identification in the district,” said elections expert and Chapman University professor Mike Moodian. “They don’t have the benefit of having previous experience on the city council, or the Board of Supervisors, or the State Assembly … In my view, I think it makes it a wide open race for that number two slot.”

But Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee west coast spokesman Andrew Godnich said the lack of political experience can be a positive.  

Godnich said Democrats can capitalize on the Republican Congressional votes to repeal the individual healthcare mandate and the federal tax bill’s elimination of the individual deduction.

“I think this is actually a time when people are looking for outsiders,” Godnich said, adding that although Walters has high name recognition, she’s also tied to her Congressional track record, like her vote on the federal tax bill. “You can see the (tax) increases, especially for homeowners.”

“There’s a positive in that’s she has a higher name ID, but negative in that she has all those votes,” Godnich said. “This is not an election [when] being a Washington insider is a benefit.”

California operates under the top-two primary system, also called “jungle primaries,” because the top two vote-getters go on to the general election, regardless of political party.

Democrats targeted the district as part of a national effort to secure 24 seats across the country to gain control of the 435-member House of Representatives.

The district, which is home to nearly 400,000 registered voters, encompasses Lake Forest, Irvine, Rancho Santa Margarita, and portions of Anaheim Hills, Orange, Tustin, Laguna Woods and Laguna Hills.

According to the latest available data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters, as of May 16 Republicans have the edge with 153,000 registered voters, followed by Democrats at 122,000 and no preference voters at 105,000.  

Using various reports provided by the California Secretary of State, the district had an overall voter turnout of 43 percent for the 2016 presidential election year primary elections, when Walters easily advanced to the November general election.

During the 2014 off-year elections, the turnout for the primaries was just 23 percent of registered voters in the district when Walters coasted into the November general elections.

The district’s voter turnout trends mirror the county’s. In 2014, 24 percent of registered voters participated in the primary election and in 2016, a presidential election year, nearly half of Orange County voters participated in the primary election.

Election handicapper websites Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Report consider the district leaning Republican.

Meanwhile, Walters leads in fundraising heading into the June 5 primary as she’s raised $2.2 million. Her Democratic challengers trail with Brian Forde at $1.2 million, Katie Porter at a little over $1 million, Dave Min $900,000 and Kia Hamadanchy $575,000.

“I’ve never seen this level of enthusiasm and involvement from the state Democratic party or the national Democratic party in Orange County in my lifetime,” said the 41-year-old Moodian.

But the enthusiasm may only take the candidates so far because the Democrats haven’t fielded anyone in the district with experience holding an elected position.

“I just think that the Republicans for decades … they do a really good job at establishing a farm team,” Moodian said. “They get Republicans elected to education boards, city councils, the Board of Supervisors … and the Democrats in our county have always done a really poor job at that …  it just goes to show the Democrat party needs to learn from the Republican Party.”

Moodian pointed to the 5th district Supervisor race in south Orange County.

“This, to me, is just further proof: You have all these talented (Democratic) people running for Congress, but nobody running against Lisa Bartlett for Board of Supervisors,” Moodian said.

Godnich said he and workers from other Democratic organizations have been “hitting the ground game” and talking with people in hopes of getting them registered and motivated to vote in the primary election.

“Orange County certainly has not seen this amount of Democratic organizations (involved in races) in almost 100 years, so I think people who have watched this county for a long time are excited,” Godnich said.

While Min and Porter are both UCI professors, Forde is a businessman from the telecommunications industry who ran his own business and served as a technological adviser in President Obama’s administration.

Porter has endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

Forde scored endorsements from the Orange County Young Democrats and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin).

Hamadanchy has endorsements from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

Meanwhile, Min has endorsements from 13 Democratic California Representatives, including Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana). He is also endorsed by the California Democratic party.

Walters has been endorsed by the county and state Republican Parties, along with District Attorney Tony Rackackaus, Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Michelle Steel and former Assemblyman and Irvine Mayor Don Wagner. She also has a host of Republican city council members’ endorsements from cities throughout the county.

Moodian said its difficult to find a Democratic frontrunner in the district right now, noting that Min and Porter have done significant fundraising. But Forde comes from the business field and is a former Republican, which could attract people from all parties.

“Forde would probably have that best shot at crossing over (parties),” Moodian said. “In a district, such as this, where you do still have a strong Republican base … somebody like Forde could be that person who crosses over, who appeals to maybe a small number of Republicans, some Democrats, some no political preference voters.”

He said Porter may be too progressive for the district.

“Porter is really campaigning and positioning herself as the Elizabeth Warren progressive … that could pose some problems trying to gain no political preference voters and that would turn off Republicans,” Moodian said.

Correction: A previous version of this story omitted candidate Kia Hamadanchy. VOC  regrets the error.

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter who covers south Orange County and Fullerton. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org.

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