Santana: Welcome to Purple County

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Michelle Saldana, a 27-year-old Orange resident, votes for the first time.

President Ronald Reagan launched his 1984, Morning in America re-election campaign in Orange County, famously noting it was the kind of place where all good Republicans come to die.

This past week, the GOP did just that.

Democrats successfully swept four key congressional elections that stretch across Orange County. For the first time since the 1930s, Orange County’s congressional delegation will not include one single Republican member.

Turnout for a midterm election was historic, 65 percent, something not seen since the Watergate era of the 1970s.

While the national Blue Wave fueled by President Trump was a key factor in the lopsided election results favoring Democrats here in Orange County, a deeper reading of the results points much more to energy than ideology.

Candidates and activists who got out there and engaged – from our four new members of Congress, to our new District Attorney-elect Todd Spitzer, to the new council majorities in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, to the wage initiative in Anaheim – they all won.

Incumbents that opted for the same, old, tired approach to campaigning here in Orange County – ie: avoiding any public debates or discussions and solely talking to their base through campaign mail – lost.

On the congressional front, both incumbents Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher ran ghost-like campaigns, in terms of public exposure. They were nowhere to be found. They rarely responded to reporters from numerous outlets and turned down public events, podcast interviews and Voice of OC offers to submit Opeds. GOP challengers like Diane Harkey engaged a tiny bit more in terms of showing up at some public debates and Young Kim did show up for a debate on Rick Reiff’s Inside OC show.

But overall, the GOP brand approach in OC this election cycle was hide.

Incumbent District Attorney Tony Rackauckas pretty much phoned in a campaign, probably somewhere off the coast of California while fishing. He ducked public debates, such as the Hispanic 100 debate in Newport Beach, an event that ended up becoming an off-the-cuff discussion with his chief opponent, Todd Spitzer with a large audience of conservative Latino executives from across Orange County, who later endorsed him.

Spitzer, in turn, went everywhere and fundraised effectively.

He won.

Our four new members of Congress all went through a bruising public primary season choc full of debates that produced energized candidates, who engaged much more with the public during the general campaign.

For example, all four successful congressional campaigns stopped by the On OC Podcast. GOP candidates did not.

Over in Anaheim, Chamber of Commerce, Disney and resort industry executives also didn’t engage much at community forums or with Opeds or podcast interviews.

They mainly went with millions in attack mail.

The approach may have potentially won them a mayors seat as well as two city council seats.

Yet it failed miserably against the wage initiative.

That’s because it ran into an army of union activists, who did what they know how to do well, get people to the polls.

Those activists then were joined by another contingent of young motivated people with the Democratic Party, who for the first time in many years were organized, energetic and focused.

On Election Day, I stopped by the UFCW Hall in Buena Park as charged union and Democratic Party volunteers kept pouring into the joint election night party, jazzed and pumped from being out in the field. They were motivated, loud and energetic despite the late hour that night as the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Throughout Election Day, while we visited polls, I recall turnout was humming along at about 40 percent. Then at nightfall, as people got out of work, the numbers – and lines at polls – started swelling. The wave was here.

These activists did their job.

They engaged people and got them to vote, in record numbers.

That same night, I ventured to the coast to visit the same OC GOP party at a local restaurant on PCH in Newport Beach where I had seen a Republican rock concert take off just as Donald Trump was announced the winner of the Presidency in 2016.

Crickets.

It pretty much could have served as the campaign theme.

Over in the corner, incumbent State Assemblyman Matt Harper, usually friendly and affable, and always a good guy, sat slumped, looking dazed into an Excel spreadsheet that spelled doom. Defeat.

Harper decried the union and special interest spending in a quiet mumble then politely asked me to leave him alone.

Later that night, I ran into OC GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker – who had been ducking me during the week while trying to manage an intense intra-party rivalry between County Supervisor Andrew Do and State Senator Janet Nguyen, who is currently locked in a tight re-election that has yet to be decided.

Whitaker acknowledges that California Republicans face real challenges getting elected while Trump is in office.

Now, I’m not sure whether the OC GOP is dead.

Yet it is clear to me that the GOP brand can no longer govern in Orange County, solely relying on their base.

Welcome to Purple County.