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Orange County’s no party preference voters are likely to determine if an all Democratic congressional delegation stays or if Republicans can regain lost ground from the 2018 mid term election. 

The races could see how purple Orange County really is. 

“It’s a different county today — it’s a balanced county. We look much more like the rest of the country and we’re no longer this coastal outlier among California counties,” says Mike Moodian, Chapman University professor and local elections expert. 

Stephen Stambough, a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton, said the county’s electorate is indeed shifting, making it a more competitive environment. 

“Purple is a really good description of it. In this environment it gives the Democrats a slight edge which is what happened in 2018, and likely what will happen in 2020,” Stambough said. “No party preference voters, they’re going to push it (for the Democrats). And when you have such a high turnout election like we do now, that means it’s not just the core parties turning out,  it’s everybody.” 

Moodian thinks “what we will likely see is a slight majority of no party preference voters will vote along Democratic lines this year.”

But OC Republican party chairman Fred Whitaker believes President Donald Trump is going to bring out a large number of GOP voters, which could mean the party takes some Congressional seats back. 

“In our Congressional races and our legislative races, the President being on the ballot drives the base … even though the president lost Orange County (in 2016), we won all the Congressional and legislative seats,” Whitaker said in an Aug. 19 Voice of OC podcast.

Whitaker also said Democrats will pay the price at the ballot box for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s coronavirus shutdowns. 

“It’s a self-inflicted economic wound here in California and somebody’s going to have to pay the price and that’s going to be the Democrats,” Whitaker said.  

Moodian also said the annual countywide polling he conducts shows a shift to Democratic voting trends. 

“Our polling that we conduct every year, the state of Orange County poll, shows that the no party preference voters in the past three years are aligned with the Democratic voters in terms of views toward national politics. In other words, low approval of Trump,” Moodian said. 

Orange County’s number of NPP voters nearly doubled in 20 years. In the 2000 general election, 14% of voters were registered as NPP. Over 24 percent of the 1.7 million registered voters are no preference, according to data from the OC Registrar of Voters. 

Roughly one-quarter of voters in each of the Congressional Districts are no party preference. 

Democrats have an over two-point registration advantage countywide, with over 36% of OC voters registered with the party. 

Stambough said Orange County Democrats have started building a local farm team to beef up their field of candidates down the road. 

“If you have good candidates with good experiences by running people at lower offices, then they’ll have credible futures down the road as well,” Stambough said. “The Democrats have not had a farm team here forever.”

During the 2018 election, Republicans eventually lost in the later rounds of ballot counts, paving the way for a Democratic sweep of the Congressional seats. 

It was a sweep that some election watchers and experts deemed as a referendum on Trump — especially since Hillary Clinton won OC in 2016, the first time a Democratic Presidential candidate won the county since Franklin Roosevelt. 

This year, the Republican Congressional candidates face the same scenario. 

39th District 

In a rematch from 2018, Republican Young Kim — a former Assemblywoman — is again challenging Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Fullerton) for the northern Congressional district. 

Kim was winning on Election Night in the 2018 race, but Cisneros eventually took the edge after later rounds of ballot counts swung the results in his favor. 

“I think among all of the Congressional races in Orange County this year, the 39th is the one that will be the most competitive. And there are a handful of reasons as to why Cisneros won by a very small margin a few years ago,” Moodian said, adding that Kim has been politically active for years. 

Kim was chief of staff for former Rep. Ed Royce and she has been a steady presence in the northern Congressional district. She also rallied behind the anti-gas tax measure in 2018 and has consistently made efforts to distance herself from national Republicans.  

The former Assemblywoman is aiming to support small businesses during the pandemic, lower taxes and lower healthcare costs, according to her campaign website.

Cisneros, a navy veteran and lottery winner, criticized Trump and the Senate for confirming Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court while the coronavirus relief package efforts stalled. 

According to his campaign website, Cisneros is looking to defend Obamacare, make college affordable, keep Medicare and Social Security funded and is pushing for more protections for disabled people. He sits on the House Committee on Armed Services and the House Veterans Affairs Committee. 

“Voter registration is pretty even, Democrats have a slight registration advantage in that district. There’s a pretty high no party preference presence as well,” Moodian said. “Kim is probably the most formidable challenger. She has raised a lot of money.”

Kim also distanced herself from the President after she criticized some of the language Trump used to describe coronavirus, like “Chinese Flu.” 

“She’s thought of highly among members of her party and she’s the one Republican challenger this year that has, at times, distanced herself from the President, which I think will help her among moderates and no party preference voters,” Moodian said. 

Stambough said Trump’s effect on the elections might be too much for Kim to fight off. 

“In a presidential year the vast majority of the votes are going to be a referendum on the presidential race,” he said. “That said, so many of these were really close a couple of years ago that they still could possibly flip the other way, like the Kim/Cisneros race.” 

But Whitaker, during the August podcast, said Cisneros has been largely absent during his Congressional tenure, which will cost him next Tuesday. 

“He’s absent from the district. I mean both he and (Rep. Harley) Rouda gave their proxies to some other Congressman from the east coast to vote their votes instead of actually doing their job on behalf of the people of Orange County,” he said. 

45th District 

Freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) takes on Republican candidate Greg Raths, also a Mission Viejo City Councilman, in a race where voter registration is nearly even. 

Porter, a college professor, has garnered national attention for her questioning of financial executives during the Committee on Oversight and Reform hearings. According to her campaign website, Porter wants to overturn the Trump tax cuts, push Medicare for all, get paid family leave for everyone and overhaul the immigration system to allow citizenship for undocumented people. 

Raths, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, wants to reform the unemployment system so people aren’t discouraged from going back to work, get virus liability protections for businesses and hold China accountable for the virus, according to his campaign website. 

The Republicans’ voter registration advantage might be lost in the wash because of Trump’s low OC approval ratings, Moodian said. 

Instead of distancing himself from Trump like Kim did, Raths has embraced the President’s stance on many issues and posts pro-Trump messages throughout his social media accounts. 

Moodian said the OC Republicans likely don’t think Raths can win after Whitaker didn’t bring up the race in an August Voice of OC podcast. 

“Whitaker did not even mention the 45th as a district he believed he could flip,” Moodian said. 

And Raths criticized the OC Register after the editorial board endorsed him. 

He claimed the paper failed to cover a picture of Porter and her supporters gathered without masks, and Raths said it was a clear Democratic bias. 

The paper responded with a scathing editorial.  

“That would be a great point if true. The only problem: The photo is from last year,” the editorial board wrote. “While there is separation between the editorial board and the newsroom, we can’t ignore a debacle like this.”

The board also said Raths should focus issues. 

“Our advice: If Greg Raths wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for Congress, he should run a serious campaign based on the issues, not misguided grudges. With just weeks to go, attacking the newspaper that endorsed him with fake news isn’t the strategy of a serious candidate.”

48th District

Freshman Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) squares off against Supervisor Michelle Steel, a Republican, for the coastal district where the GOP has a six-point registration advantage. 

Rouda, a former Republican and a business owner, wants to reinstate tax deductions for mortgages, lower the cost of prescription drugs and expand health care coverage, according to his campaign website.

Steel, a county Supervisor, is looking to end sanctuary cities, wants to reinstate tax deductions for mortgages, is against government-run healthcare and aims to keep protections for people with pre-existing conditions.   

But some of Steel’s statements could come back to hurt her election chances, Moodian said. 

“She’s made a lot of blunders, a lot of bizarre statements that have become noticed,” Moodian said. “She made a very unusual remark about species discrimination about dogs and masks. It’s something that I’ve watched 20 times and still can’t figure out what she’s trying to say.”

At a Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this year, Steel questioned the science behind masks and said it could be considered “species discrmination” because they were mandatory for people and not dogs. 

Steel has also railed against state requirements to lower coronavirus positivity rates in OC’s poorest neighborhoods before being able to open more businesses. 

“She has followed the lead of the President of the United States and that has been problematic, because the president hasn’t had consistent messaging around coronavirus and neither have the incumbents at the county level,” Moodian said. 

Stambough said her messaging, along with most of the other Republican candidates, hasn’t been strong. 

“I don’t think she’s been as strong as a candidate as people had hoped on the Republican side,” Stambough said. “Just looking at the campaign messages, looking at the mailers, the advertisements, the public statements, I still don’t see a reason — it’s not really an articulated reason — to why to vote for the Republican candidates.” 

Whitaker said Rouda has made some mistakes during the pandemic also, which will cost him. 

“Harley’s going to have a lot of explaining to do. He was all for when Gavin (Newsom) shut down the beaches, and then he went out on his private beach,” Whitaker said during the podcast. 

“Harley is in an area … that’s used to having public safety, yet everything he has done is to give big shoutouts to the defund the police movement and that doesn’t play well in that district,” Whitaker said. 

Steel, along with a majority of county Supervisors, pushed back against mandatory mask orders from a former health officer, who eventually resigned after receiving threats over the order. 

It was eventually walked back by the new county health officer Dr. Clayton Chau while cases were beginning to surge in OC. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom eventually instituted a mandatory mask order not long after Chau walked the local health order back. 

The OC Register’s editorial board endorsed Rouda, too. 

“Rouda has also been a reliable supporter of criminal justice and policing reforms. Rouda supports the end of federal marijuana prohibition, has voted to curtail civil asset forfeiture and supports abolishing qualified immunity in civil rights lawsuits against law enforcement officers,” the board wrote. 

They also criticized Steel. 

“In our interview with Steel, she seemed poorly versed in federal policy issues and overly reliant on GOP talking points,” the board wrote. “Steel suggested repealing the federal Department of Education but was otherwise light on specifics about downsizing the federal government.”

49th District

Freshman Rep. Mike Levin (D-Oceanside) is defending his seat against Republican Brian Maryott, a San Juan Capistrano City Councilman. 

Levin, an environmental attorney, has consistently pushed for nuclear waste to be removed from the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. According to his campaign website, Levin wants Medicare for all, to reform how nuclear waste is stored and to end family separations at the Mexican border.

Maryott, a financial planner, wants to reform some social programs, is against government-run healthcare, wants to end taxes on social security checks, seeks to protect businesses from coronavirus liabilities and wants to push for more apprenticeship programs. 

Both Moodian and Stambough don’t think it’s going to be a competitive race this year after Levin’s blowout victory against Republican Diane Harkey in 2018. 

Although Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration, it’s the NPP voters that made the difference in 2018, the two election experts said. 

“I think that’s a relatively safe seat for Levin,” Moodian said. 

But Whitaker said Maryott’s been running an impressive campaign. 

“Maryott’s running a great race … tremendous volunteer output out there,” Whitaker said. “I’m actually really optimistic about the 49th.

Stambough said the state GOP is having a tough time distancing itself from the national image of the party and getting a coherent message across to voters.  

“I think that’s really the problem of the GOP in California to articulate what that message is,” he said. “They’re walking a really fine line with a bad national image and what it means to be Republican in Orange County again.” 

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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