Looking Ahead at OC’s Political Landscape

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

People take to the polls at Community Bible Church in Huntington Beach for the November 2018 election.

Orange County Republicans need to distance themselves from President Donald Trump to to regain the offices they lost in November and Democrats can’t overplay their hand in order to keep the legislative seats they gained heading into 2020, according to policy and elections specialists.

That political advice and more from county experts is being reviewed as candidates and campaign professionals look to the 2020 elections and how to handle the major changes 2018 brought to Orange County.

Democrats now represent all seven U.S. House of Representatives Districts in the county after they flipped four districts, picked up two state legislative seats and a County Supervisor seat in 2018 — all gains in what have been long considered Republican strongholds.

Chapman University political science professor and elections expert Mike Moodian said the division between national Republicans and OC Republicans is hurting the GOP’s 2020 election prospects.

“The reason is that in California — and Orange County is starting to resemble more California in terms of its politics, but it will always be an outlier and not as progressive as the state in policies — we’re seeing the county start to embrace progressive views as it relates to climate change, as to health care,” Moodian said. “I think the Republican party in Orange County is a little bit in disarray right now. They’re trying to find some identity.”

Moodian said the GOP is going to have to pick between siding with Trump or distancing themselves and pointed to state Board of Equalization Chairwoman Diane Harkey — who lost to Democratic newcomer Mike Levin in the southern 49th Congressional District race.

“Does the Republican party in the county want to be the party that embraces Trump or does it want to be the party that distances itself from Trump — remember Diane Harkey was endorsed by Trump and didn’t even list it on her (campaign) website,” Moodian said.

In an email newsletter, OC GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker acknowledged that some Republicans voted for Democrats in the general election.

“As a matter of fact, on many of the preliminary vote totals we’ve been looking at – significant numbers of Republicans we turned out, look to have voted Democrat. Whether it was on healthcare or the limitations on mortgage interest and state tax deductions, some of our voters defected,” Whitaker wrote.

In a podcast with Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana Jr., Whitaker said Republicans need to localize races in the 2020 elections in their attempt to take back legislative seats lost to Democrats. The new Democratic super majority in the state legislature could benefit Republicans, Whitaker said.

“Democrats will be unable to help themselves and they will overstep and more likely they’ll overstep on people’s Prop 13 protection, they’ll over step on income taxes, other forms of taxation and fees. And, just like you’re seeing in France, your average working person is just going to say, ‘enough.’ So I think if we just focus on those bread and butter issues … and not let ourselves get nationalized in the election, we’ll do better,” Whitaker said.  

He also said Republicans are going to need more money in the 2020 elections, especially since Democrats far outspent Republicans in the four key Congressional Districts — the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th — during the 2018 election.

“Over $24 million came out of Orange County on the Republican side and back to the national committees and really only four or five came back,” Whitaker said. “I think they (national Republicans) took a look at what was the field and where they thought people will hold. We were pretty cocky, we thought we would hold Orange County.”

Ada Briceño, who’s running for chair of the OC Democratic party, said the party saw some strong candidates emerge in the 2018 elections, which can help secure local offices for the party.

“What’s exciting to me is that for the school boards and city councils, we’ve seen all these leaders come out from different groups — great candidates we saw in this past election … we are going to have no shortage (of candidates). We need to train them and mentor them so they can go into our school boards and city councils,” said Briceño, who is also co-president of Unite Here 11, a local service worker union.

“I think in 2019 and 2020, our goal is to make sure that we keep our Democrats elected and they gain an additional seat. And we have to do that by continuing to register voters in high numbers and my vision is to bring town halls and events to recruit candidates, and not only candidates, but to recruit the base that’s going to get our folks and keep our folks elected,” Brcieño said.

Most political and elections scholars don’t consider Orange County a blue county, but a purple county because overall voter registration is nearly even between Republicans and Democrats — the GOP holds less than a one percentage point lead over Democrats at 34.3 percent of voters, according to data from the OC Registrar of Voters.

The biggest upset happened in the coastal 48th District when Democratic newcomer Harley Rouda beat nearly 30-year Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa). Many elections specialists attributed Rouda’s win not only to the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote effort, but to Rohrabacher’s favorable views on Russia, various other controversies and his lack of public events in the district.

The 71-year-old Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter and special assistant for President Ronald Reagan, had been in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1989.

Although Republicans had a voter registration edge in the district heading into the general election, it wasn’t enough to keep Rohrabacher in office. Like the other three OC Congressional districts targeted by national Democrats, the GOP’s edge in voter registration has been slowly dropping. In 2012 the GOP had a 15-point lead over Democrats in the 48th district — seven points more than 2018. The no party preference (NPP) voters grew from 23 to 27 percent since 2012, while Democrat voters grew from 28 to 30 percent.

California State University, Fullerton political science professor Meriem Doucette, a policy and political behavior expert, said Republicans need to find new policies that will connect with OC moderate Republicans and NPP voters.

“The Republicans really have to go back to the drawing board because tying themselves to Trump and his policies is not a path to victory in Orange County,” Doucette said.

She said Republicans may fare better if they focus on the homelessness issue that’s spreading throughout the county.

“Republicans in general are afraid of using the word ‘tax’ or afraid of increasing public funding for social services like that, but homelessness has become a crisis in Orange County and California. You see it everywhere now … as much as Republicans are concerned about spending money on those kinds of things, it is something that’s affecting people everywhere, and they’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that issue, even though it’s not in their wheelhouse,” Doucette said.  

She also said the sanctuary city controversy from the county and various cities throughout 2018 could play a factor in 2020, depending on who comes out to vote.

“Millennials and young voters tend to be more supportive in sanctuary city ideas. If they come out to vote, they’re (Republicans) going to have a real problem,” Doucette said, adding that Trump will be a motivating factor for Democrats. “I think Democrats are going to be running against Trump because he’s so unpopular.”

The Republican National Committee didn’t respond for comment and the state GOP referred Voice of OC to Whitaker, who didn’t respond for comment. But, during the podcast, Whitaker said the GOP should include the homelessness issue in its platform.

“Our candidates for the higher offices should talk about the Orange County way in dealing with that issue (homelessness) and really taking away that issue from the Democrats because its a quality of life issue for most people. So I think we can be aggressive on that.” Whitaker said.

Echoing what Whitaker said, Democrats at the national and state level need to avoid overplaying their hand by advancing or advocating for policies that could be seen by voters as too progressive, said many elections and policy experts.

“The Democrats will get very emboldened and mistake their very slim victories as a mandate to govern really far to the left or advance a lot of very progressive ideals which won’t go over well with a lot of the electorate in the county,” said Scott Spitzer, CSUF elections and policy professor. “If they focus a lot of energy impeaching Trump right away, I don’t think that’s going to go over well … it’s (OC) certainly not a left-wing, progressive electorate.”

Efforts from local, state and national Democrats on the Congressional races could have a spillover effect into Democrats mobilizing campaigns to run for city councils and other local offices that have been dominated by Republicans for years.

“I think one of the good things for Democrats this last election did was it brought a lot of OC Democrats into political organizations … you look at races where Democrats didn’t do well like the sheriff’s race, they’re just not running good candidates yet,” said CSUF American Politics professor Rob Robinson.

“My sense is that in the medium to longer run some of the organization developed for these House races will trickle down into these state and local races … and that just has to happen for Democrats to be more competitive at the county level,” Robinson said. “You see this in other states: Democrats lost Presidential or Congressional races … but they started winning local races … They’re still electing Democrats in West Virginia even though Trump won by like 20 points.”

Democrats did gain a seat on the County Board of Supervisors when former Fullerton Mayor Doug Chaffee defeated La Habra Mayor Tim Shaw for the north district seat.

Since Supervisor Todd Spitzer won the District Attorney’s election, a special election will be held March 12 to fill the remaining two years on the term. Voters will choose among Democratic former Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, Irvine Mayor Don Wagner and former Anaheim Councilwoman Kris Murray. Wagner and Murray, both Republicans, face the possibility of splitting the GOP vote and giving Sanchez the 3rd District seat.

Unlike the north county 4th District won by Chaffee in November, Republicans have the voter registration advantage in the 3rd District. The GOP has a 3.8 percentage-point margin above Democrats in the 3rd District, versus Democrats’ 10.6-point advantage in the 4th District.

“Immediately, we have the supervisors race — the third district. That’s coming in the next few months and I think it’s a great opportunity for us to make a gain and give our friend Doug Chaffee another friend,” Briceño said.

While Whitaker downplayed the effect Trump has on the Republican party, longtime GOP strategist Stu Spencer — who ran Ronald Reagan’s gubernatorial and presidential campaigns — told Voice of OC in November that as long as Trump is on the ballot in 2020, any Republicans efforts to regain the House and gain local seats will be hampered.

“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.”

Spencer also said the Republicans need to connect with the Latino community and back off the hardline stances on immigration the national GOP has taken since the rise of the Tea Party.

“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. 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.

Moodian agreed with Spencer’s assessment and said, “This decline goes back to (Gov.) Pete Wilson and prop 187. This is when the GOP officially began alienating itself from the Latino electorate.”

Proposition 187 allowed law enforcement to 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.

Chapman University political science professor and elections expert Fred Smoller said Republicans need to pay more attention to the environment if they want to secure young voters for 2020, who mostly voted for Democrats in November.

“They’re shitting on the environment, alienating the young and new voters — it’s sad because we desperately need a two party system. One party rule is not good,” Smoller said.

He also said Democrats need to come up with some strong policy ideas heading into 2020.   

“The Democrats, they also have to come up with some governing ideas. So far it’s just anti-Republican and I don’t see a positive discussion there — you can’t beat something with nothing,” Smoller said.

Robinson said strong Republican candidates may sit out until at least 2022 because Trump and the national Republicans’ effect on the elections is too strong to overcome.

“At least in the next two or three years, I don’t see a lot of hope for these seats. I think a lot of good (GOP) candidates are going to just wait,” Robinson said. “I think if a Democrat wins (the presidency) in 2020, the typical reaction is that the election of a president is usually followed by a counter reaction in the next term. It happened to Trump, it happened to (Barrack) Obama, it would’ve happened to (George W.) Bush, but 9/11 happened.”

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio