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Orange County’s congressional elections are expected to remain competitive throughout the year, with freshman Congressional Democrats expected to advance to November after next week’s primary election, according to local academics and observers. 

While the nickname Purple County – meaning Orange County now has slightly more Democrats than Republicans along with a large number of No Party Preference voters – is prompting some analysts to note that the electorate could throw out some surprises on March 3, others warn that Republicans face serious challenges in the March primary and the November general election.  

Observers note that Republicans may face challenges winning back the four seats because of the effect of President Donald Trump, mixed with the shifting demographics in Orange County. 

“When I first started Orange County public policy polling in 2010, I would have told you that you’re nuts if you told me eight years later it would’ve been a complete Democratic takeover of County Congressional seats,” said Chapman University political science professor Mike Moodian. 

The 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th Congressional Districts were long considered Republican strongholds. 

“If you were to tell me 10 years ago that within a decade that Democrats would have a registration advantage in the County, I would have said that’s not realistic,” Moodian said. “I think it’s been because Donald Trump has been such an unpopular president in Orange County.” 

Although voting trends favored the Congressional Democrats in Orange County in 2018 and the freshman Representatives will likely survive the upcoming March 3 primaries, some could face a tough reelection in November, said longtime Republican strategist Stu Spencer.

“First time for reelection is always the toughest for any candidate,” said Spencer, who ran Ronald Regan’s California Gubernatorial campaign and later served as his presidential advisor. 

But, Spencer said, because of Trump’s influence on the elections, he said to expect a replay of 2018. 

“The odds are it’ll be more of the same,” Spencer said. 

He also said OC Congressional Republican candidates will have a tough time distancing themselves from the national political scene. 

Longtime Orange County pollster Adam Probolsky also said Trump’s effect on the local Congressional races might be too strong for the GOP to retake the lost House seats. 

“I think the dynamic hasn’t changed much in the last couple years. You still have a highly educated voter in Orange County who is very much put off by this President. And two years ago they were basically sending a message: One, we think you’re obnoxious and two, you raised our taxes with your ‘tax cut’ and we don’t like it,” Probolsky said. Probolsky also said the Democratic Representatives will advance to November. 

“For sure that’ll happen. One reason you have a sense of that is you haven’t seen very much campaigning by the incumbents. So they have their poling that shows they’re solid and they’re not going to spend anything until November,” he said.  

Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in each of the four Congressional Districts and countywide in 2016. 

The Cook Political Report, an election handicapper website, considers three of the four Congressional Districts as leaning Democratic, and pegs the 49th as likely Democratic. 

“They’re (Cook) taking a lot of things into account, including the registration … all of them were leaning Democrat and that’s a reflection of one you got the incumbent advantage in all of them.  And, two, you’ve got a strong machine that was present in 2018 that at least to some degree is expected to be there in 2020,” said Mindy Romero, founder and director of the University of Southern California’s (USC) California Civic Engagement Project. 

Probolsky and Moodian said the two strongest Republican challengers are former Assemblywoman Young Kim in the 39th District and County Supervisor Michelle Steel in the 48th District. 

California State University, Fullerton political science professor Rob Robinson also said the upcoming races are likely to be the same as 2018. 

“I guess if I had to boil it down to one theme, a repeat of 18’ sounds about right. My big question is to what extent, if any, would the Presidential race change the dynamics of the Congressional races. And I’ll be honest, I don’t know the answer,” Robinson said. 

Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) will face San Juan Capistrano Mayor Brian Maryott, a Republican, in next week’s primary election and the November general election because they’re the only two on the 49th district’s ballot. 

39th District 

The District was leaning Republican heading into the 2018 primary election, according to the Cook Political report, but it’s now leaning Democrat after Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Fullerton) beat former Assemblywoman Young Kim (R-Fullerton). 

The two are going to battle at the ballot box again this year and the fundraising levels are nearly equal. 

Cisneros raised nearly $1.5 million and Kim has raised a little over $1.5 million, according to the latest campaign finance data from the Federal Election Commission website. In 2018, he narrowly beat Kim by 7,600 votes after coming from behind thanks to mail-in ballots. 

No Party Preference Steve Cox is also listed on the ballot, although the FEC disclosures show he hasn’t fundraised. 

Moodian said the race is likely to be tight again because Kim has name recognition from her former Assembly seat and because she’s run for office before. 

And voter registration is almost evenly split with Democrats at 35 percent and Republicans with nearly 33 percent of the district’s 387,000 registered voters. No Party Preference voters make up over a quarter of voters. 

“The reason I think that will be a very competitive race is that one, registration numbers are very close, number two Cisneros barely defeated Young Kim [in 2018],” Moodian said. “So I think that will certainly be a competitive race. I don’t know who the favorite will be, but that alone should give local Republicans some hope.”

Probolsky also said Kim is a strong candidate, but said it’s still an uphill battle against Cisneros. 

“She’s a hard working candidate, she’s been around a long time,” Probolsky said. “She’s the second most likely to take out an incumbent. I still think it’s an uphill battle. The Democrats will have what will seem to be unlimited resources in November to defend their seats. It will be pretty hard for Republicans to counter that.” 

Robinson said OC is now a purple county, not a blue or red one, which could be reflected in the 39th district race. 

“I still think of Orange County as purple and the 39th is a good example of a race that’s closer than most. My sense is Gil Cisneros is most at risk,” said Robinson, citing his narrow 2018 win.

But Robinson said if Cisneros can maintain the momentum he had in 2018, he should be safe. 

“The only thing I can imagine changing that is Republicans, for whatever reason, who didn’t show up to vote in 18’, show up to vote in 20. But typically, Republican voters in Orange County tend to vote in high numbers already,” Robinson said. “It’s possible that could happen, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.”  

The 39th district consists of the most northern portion of Orange County from parts of Buena Park, Placentia and Anaheim Hills and contains all of Yorba Linda, Brea, La Habra and Fullerton while reaching north to parts of neighboring Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

Voter turnout for the district was relatively high during the 2018 midterm primary election at nearly 40 percent. In 2016’s Presidential primary election, turnout out was 41 percent. In the 2014 midterm primary election, turnout was just under 20 percent. 

45th District 

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) is squaring off against several Republican candidates, including Mission Viejo Councilman Greg Raths, Laguna Hills Councilman Don Sedgwick and Yorba Linda Councilwoman Peggy Huang, who’s also a deputy attorney general.  

Porter is far ahead in fundraising with $3.8 million raised, according to the latest available campaign finance data on the Federal Election Commission website. Sedgwick trails at $860,000. Chapman University Dean of Communications Lisa Sparks, who also is on the County Board of Education, raised nearly $500,000. Raths and Huang are tied at $451,000.

Huang lives in Yorba Linda, which is outside of the 45th district. House Representatives aren’t required to live in the districts they represent. 

“The 45th — it’s impossible to tell. You have several Republican candidates who have not raised a lot of money,” Moodian said. “They all are either small city [councilmembers] and one is a member of the County Board of Education. They’re not necessarily people who are known districtwide.” 

Other Republicans on the ballot include attorney Christopher Gonzalez, who raised a little over $18,000, and retired teacher Rhonda Furin, who doesn’t have any finance information available on the FEC website

Porter unseated former Rep. Mimi Walters in 2018 by 12,500 votes. 

Voter registration in the district still favors Republicans at 35.5 percent of the 435,000 registered voters. Democrats make up 32 percent and No Party Preference is at 27 percent of voters. 

Just over 42 percent of voters in the district participated in the 2018 primary election, nearly even with the 43 percent turnout rate in 2016’s primary election. In 2014, only 23 percent of voters casted a ballot and a quarter of voters casted a ballot in the 2012 primary election. 

“I know Raths has been very aggressively having volunteers go door-to-door and he’s gone door-to-door — that’s big, but the Congressional district is very big,” Moodian said.  

The district encompasses Lake Forest, Irvine, Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, and portions of Anaheim Hills, Orange, Tustin, Laguna Woods and Laguna Hills.

Probolsky said he doesn’t see a particularly strong Republican candidate in the 45th District and thinks Porter will win the November election, unless some type of controversy happens before then. 

“I don’t think any of them are strong. I think they are all marginal players and I don’t think any of them have the financial resources to take on Katie Porter,” he said. 

But Probolsky said Porter’s progressive policies may eventually turn off voters in the district.

Porter is aligned with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the Senator, who’s fighting to become the Democratic Presidential nominee, endorsed Porter’s campaign in 2018.

“So she’ll probably squeak by. She can’t stay there forever, because people will catch on that she’s so far left in her politics and she will lose at some point. I just don’t think it’s in 2020,” Probolsky said. 

But Moodian said Porter has been strategic in her messaging to voters and cited her opposition to the 12-cent per gallon gas tax in 2018. 

“So even though, two years ago, she ran as the progressive populist candidate who was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, she also came out — in a stance that Republicans favored, actually in favor of most voters — in standing against the gas tax. That was something unusual,” Moodian said. 

48th District 

Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) is facing Republican OC Supervisor Michelle Steel in a race that both Probolsky and Rouda said could be tight for Rouda. 

Rouda has raised $2.5 million, while Steel fundraised nearly $1.8 million. 

“I also think Harley Rouda will be in for a tough race against Michelle Steel,” Moodian said. 

The freshman Representative pulled one of the biggest upsets in 2018 when he defeated longtime Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher by almost 21,000 votes. 

“I think Rohrabacher had turned off a lot of voters. Voters went for Rouda not because they’re necessarily pro Rouda, but because they were against Rohrabacher,” Moodian said. 

”Well this time it’s not Rouda running against Rohrabacher, it’s Michelle Steel. Somebody who’s not as controversial as Rohrabacher,” said Moodian, noting Trump appointed her to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

“She’s a Trump appointee, she has the establishment behind her,” Moodian said. “That all matters. So I think that Rouda may be vulnerable in the 48th.”

There are four other Republicans on the ballot for the 45th district seat. Business owner Brian Burley is the only one of the four who fundraised at $87,000, according to the FEC website.

John Schuesler, Richard Mata and James Griffin don’t have any fundraising activity listed on the FEC site. 

Probolsky said Steel is the most likely to win back a Congressional seat for the Republicans. 

The district’s voter registration still favors Republicans at nearly 38 percent of the district’s 420,000 voters. Democrats make up a little over 31 percent of the district, followed by No Party Preference at a quarter of the voters. 

Robinson said Rouda has done a good job by not going too liberal on issues, but that might not matter because “it may be Trump is just such an overriding issue for voters.”

Probolsky said it could boil down to an anti-Trump and Republican party-vote down the ballot. 

“I think we’re planning on the highest turnout in our lifetime. That obviously could change. There’s definitely still an element of people voting against Trump, rather than any particular candidate,” Probolsky said. “Michelle Steel running against Harley Rouda — She’s making, I think, a real effort to take that seat.”

The 2018 midterm primary turnout rate was nearly 45 percent for the district, which was higher than the 2016 Presidential primary at nearly 44 percent. In 2014, only 24 percent of voters casted a ballot in the primary election and 25 percent of voters participated in the 2012 primary election.  

The district spans the coastal cities of Orange County from Seal Beach to Laguna Niguel and stretches east into parts of Westminster and Garden Grove. It also includes Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Newport Beach, Aliso Viejo and Laguna Beach.

Robinson said California Republicans need to get back to their bread and butter issues. 

“One thing I think California Republicans need to do is connect better with Asians and Latinos, and right now I just don’t see it,” Robinson said. “California is a high tax state and there’s a lot of kitchen table issues that can pull people into the Republican party.” 

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

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