Republican candidate Young Kim conceded to Democrat Gil Cisneros in the 39th Congressional District race Saturday night and now all seven Orange County Congressional districts will be represented by Democrats.
“This evening, I called Gil Cisneros to congratulate him and offer him my best wishes in Congress. Both sides worked hard in this campaign, but now it’s time to come together and find solutions and opportunities that move our community and country forward,” Kim said in a Twitter post.
The 56-year-old Kim tried to distance herself from President Donald Trump in her campaign and said she was against family separation policies at the border. She also railed against the state’s 12-cent gas tax.
But Trump’s effect on the election was too strong for Republicans to win races in California, said longtime GOP strategist Stu Spencer.
“The Republican Congressional candidates lost most districts in the state in this election. Most people voted against Trump — it was a referendum on Trump,” said Spencer, who ran Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.
“Number one, they (Republicans) got to get back to this big tent thesis we had under Reagan … and that is, you got to be inclusive in your party. In California, inclusive can be translated into Chicanos — you got to find ways to build bridges in that community.”
National Democrats targeted the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th Congressional districts after Hillary Clinton took all of the Republican districts in the 2016 election against Trump. This year, Democrats are on track to surpass their national goal of taking 23 seats from Republicans in their effort to secure the majority of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives.
As of Nov. 13, the New York Times reported Democrats took 32 seats and could take 35 to 40. It’s the biggest gain for Democrats since 1974 — the year President Richard Nixon resigned following the Watergate scandal — when they picked up 49 U.S. House seats, NPR reported Nov. 14.
NPR’s House race map shows Democrats picked up 37 House seats and five races around the country that are still uncalled, as of Nov. 18.
Chapman University political science professor and California elections expert Mike Moodian said all of OC’s U.S. House of Representative seats going to Democrats was something nobody expected, even a couple years ago.
“I never thought I’d see this — I never thought I’d see every (Congressional) seat in the county flip (from Republican to Democrat) … this is unbelievable,” Moodian said.
Spencer said he’s never seen all OC Congressional seats held by Democrats before.
“Not in my lifetime,” Spencer said.
Cisneros, after days of narrowing his gap behind Kim, took the lead for the first time by 941 votes Nov. 15, according to data tallies from election officials in Orange, Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. His lead increased to 3,495 votes, or 1.57 percentage points as of Nov. 17 when Orange County updated. San Bernardino and LA updated Nov. 16 and aren’t expected to update again until Nov. 19 and Nov. 20, respectively.
“Republicans, on election night, had good numbers,” Moodian said. “Young Kim had a double-digit lead … those were indicative of the early ballots that came in. But it shows you the (Democrats’) success of the get out the vote efforts and the late money that came in.”
According to the Federal Elections Commission website, Cisneros raised $11.1 million, including $8.8 million in self-funding. Kim raised $2.5 million. Campaign finance watchdog Open Secrets listed the 39th Congressional District race as the fifth most expensive race in the country — which includes candidate and outside group spending.
The 47-year-old Cisneros advocated healthcare for all, criticized corporate money in politics and advocated legal status for Dreamers and updating immigration policies. He’s a U.S. Navy veteran and former shipping manager at Frito Lay and after winning $266 million in the state lottery, he and his wife became philanthropists and helped fund educational access programs to poor communities around the county.
But Kim had the name recognition in the district because she is a former Assemblywoman and worked as an aide to 39th district Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) for over 20 years. Royce announced his retirement in January.
“I always saw Kim as a formidable person, as a tough opponent for Cisneros to beat. Because she’s been active in the district for years and she’s also a former assembly member … she also had the establishment behind her,” Moodian said.
In 2012, the first year after redistricting, Republicans held a 7-point advantage over Democrats in voter registration in the 39th district at 39 percent. Heading into Election Day, Democrats held 34 percent of registered voters, while Republicans had 33.4 percent. During the same time, no party preference voters increased from 23 to 29 percent.
Latinos make up a quarter and Asians 22 percent of the district’s electorate, according to Political Data Inc.
Spencer said if the GOP wants to regain Congressional seats in 2020, they’re going to have to find another presidential nominee besides Trump.
“They got to nominate someone for president who’s going to be inclusive and not create a bunch of enemies in various groups. And they got to get candidates to run for offices who reflect that thinking,” Spencer said. “I think if Trump is the nominee again, these seats that they lost are going to be difficult. If they have another nominee, it’s going to be easier.”
He also said Democrats are moving too far left and need to consider a more moderate presidential nominee in 2020.
“If Democrats nominate Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren — they got to be careful, too. The Republican party went too far right and Democrats are in the process of going too far left. They’re going to have the same problem in the next couple years,” Spencer said.
Moodian said Republicans are going to have to field more moderate candidates in the 2020 election if they hope to win OC Congressional seats back.
“Do we go hard right or distance themselves as much as possible and run moderates. I suspect they’ll run moderates and try to appeal to the no party preference voters. Because the traditional hard right Republicans like Dana Rohrabacher and Mimi Walters, Darrell Issa — they can’t win anymore in Orange County.”
Rep. Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) trailed Democratic challenger Harley Rouda by 17,000 votes Sunday. Rep. Walters (R-Laguna Beach) conceded her loss to Democratic challenger Katie Porter Nov. 16 and Issa (R-Vista) announced he wouldn’t seek reelection in the 49th district in January. Democrat Mike Levin had an 11-point lead over Republican Diane Harkey in the 49th Congressional District as of Nov. 18.
“Ever since the Tea Party raised their head, they have driven the Republican party to the right. You can be a conservative without being an extremist,” Spencer said.
He also said Republicans distanced the Latino community in 1994 when the party heavily backed Proposition 187 — which made law enforcement conduct immigration status checks on arrestees and restricted programs like healthcare, public school enrollment and other social services to legal residents and citizens. The law was eventually killed in 1999 after a series of court battles and after Gov. Gray Davis withdrew the case from the federal appeals court.
“Of course prop 187 in California was really a turning point. It started a fight with Chicanos, which, the best way to say it … I’ve been yelling at the Republican party about the Chicano issue for years,” Spencer said.
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC reporter covering the 2018 OC Congressional races. He also covers Fullerton, Irvine and Anaheim. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio