Voters could signal a new political reality in California if National Democrats get the “blue wave” they’ve been hoping for in Orange County and flip four Republican-held congressional seats this year,  said panelists from the New York Times, Southern California Public Radio (SCPR) and Voice of OC Tuesday.

The panel was hosted by Chapman University and moderated by SCPR Chief Content Officer Kristen Muller. Panelists included New York Times Los Angeles Bureau Chief Adam Nagourney, Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana, Jr. and KPCC Senior Political Reporter Mary Plummer.

Democrats are hoping to flip at least two dozen Republican seats in the 435-seat House of Representatives to regain control of the House, and are focusing on districts where voters supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Four of those key races are in Orange County, where changes in demographics, diversity and party registration have created competitive races in a county long known as a Republican stronghold.

Muller asked if a blue wave would signal Republicans have to “rip up the playbook” to survive in California, where the party has steadily lost voters for decades.

Plummer noted the growing number of voters with no party preference is changing the game for both parties.

Statewide, 43.8 percent of registered voters are Democrats and 24.5 percent are Republican, according to September voter registration figures from the Secretary of State. 

The number of no party preference voters has steadily risen statewide, from 15 percent in 2002, 20.2 percent in 2010, to 26.8 percent this year.

“When I’m out talking with people, especially young folks voting for the first time, a lot of people don’t feel particularly affiliated with Democrats or Republicans,” said Plummer. “We’re in an interesting era that’s hard to know or predict.”

Nagourney said Republicans need to be more inclusive if they want to survive – be more like former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger than John Cox, Republicans’ current candidate for governor.

“The path forward is not being carved out by Cox,” said Nagourney. “I think that’s the way the party has to go, it needs to expand its appeal, and talk less about what they’re against and more of what they’re for.”

More moderate or on-the-fence Republicans have left the party in recent years, leaving behind a core group of conservatives more likely to support Republicans like Donald Trump and creating a challenge for Republican leadership to reshape the party, Santana said.

“The leadership has a challenge, how do you go moderate when most of your moderates have left, and what you have left is a core base that really responds to those issues?” Santana said.

Beyond Election Day, the growing number of voters who don’t affiliate with a party suggests how officials govern will need to change, too, Santana said.

“It might be better that Californians aren’t so focused on elections, and they’re more focused on governance after elections,” said Santana. “No party preference is number two after the Democratic Party – its changing toward a very different governing reality the day after elections.”

Midterm elections are typically seen as a referendum on the party of the President, and Democrats are hoping dissatisfaction with Trump will motivate their base to vote and move independent voters who may be on the fence.

Nagourney said this year is one of the “most nationalized congressional elections I can remember in my lifetime.”

“I found myself in the relatively unusual position of agreeing with President Trump when he complained in a tweet one night…[that] the bombs were taking away from the momentum of Republicans,” said Nagourney, referring to a spate of bombs sent to prominent Democrats and critics of Trump. “I tend to think that the events that we’ve endured as a nation, over the past ten days, is going to reinforce for some voters discomfort with President Trump.”

Candidates like Republican former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, who is running in the 39th Congressional district against Democrat and philanthropist Gil Cisneros, have sought to distance themselves from Trump, said Plummer.

“Some folks have noticed a lot of her campaign advertising, she doesn’t use the color red, she uses the color yellow,” said Plummer. “The symbolism is different. Trump is not front and center for some of these Republican candidates.”

With demographics shifting, both parties will need to be nimble, Santana said.

“There is still a solid, Republican base in this county, they didn’t disappear overnight. But it’s becoming more competitive – two years ago, none of these races would have been in play,” said Santana.

He said financial and on-the-ground support from national Democrats has allowed local candidates facing former Republican strongholds to become competitive.

“The [Democratic Congressional  Campaign Committee] is playing in Orange County like they never have before,” said Santana, noting the DCCC has had a presence in the county since early last year. “[Before] if you were a Democratic candidate you would have had a very hard time attracting any national money at all.”

Muller asked whether Proposition 6, a ballot measure to repeal a 12-cent statewide tax on gasoline, is motivating voters the way California Republicans have hoped it would.

“Polling shows the thing is flailing,” said Nagourney, pointing to disproportionate fundraising by opponents of the repeal. “The opponents are spending $50 million to their $2.5 million.”

“At the end of the day, I don’t think they [Republicans] care about the measure. They want to see if it is going to bring out voters in these districts,” Nagourney said.

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

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