As 2020 falls behind us, it’s critical to reflect on the lessons we can take away for 2022. The unprecedented election is still offering important lessons, and we should avoid some common misperceptions which have emerged so far.
As Chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County and a Democratic National Committee member, I aim to bring both local and national perspectives to the table. One key lesson learned: from local offices to the Oval Office, Democrats made gains heading into 2021.
This year, voters participated in massive numbers. Orange County saw 87% of voters cast ballots this year — our highest turnout since 1960.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won Orange County, further building on Hillary Clinton’s strong showing here in 2016, when she broke the mold to be the first Democratic Presidential candidate to win Orange County in decades.
Looking at Presidential returns by precinct, three-quarters of Orange County’s cities and unincorporated areas shifted blue over the last four years.
Coto de Caza, Villa Park, Mission Viejo, Lake Forest and Ladera Ranch swung further blue by 7 points or more in Presidential election returns. Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano, Rancho Santa Margarita, Brea, Rossmoor, Placentia, and even Richard Nixon’s Yorba Linda shifted blue by 5 points or more since 2016, when looking at Presidential results.
These significant gains reflect Democrats’ long-haul efforts. Month after month, Democrats worked hard to make steady gains in voter registration and grassroots organizing. Today, there are 40,000 more Democratic voters residing in Orange County than Republicans.
Orange County residents remember that not too long ago, the OC GOP won state and federal elections by blowout 15 to 20 point margins. Those days are gone. Orange County is a surefire battleground, and each cycle, Democrats continue to make inroads.
While much attention has gone to the two Orange County Congressional Districts that Democrats narrowly lost in 2020, Democrats hold a majority of Orange County’s Congressional seats — five out of seven — and are hungry to retake those two seats in 2022.
Democrats now hold the majority of senate seats in Orange County — four out of five — having flipped two state senate seats with Dave Min and Josh Newman. Dave Min will become Orange County’s first Democratic Korean-American state senator.
At the local level, Orange County Democrats flipped more than 20 seats from red to blue. Democrats gained seats in San Clemente, Fountain Valley, and Huntington Beach — areas once thought untouchable. Democrats took supermajorities on the Santa Ana, Buena Park and Costa Mesa City Councils, and flipped Irvine and Aliso Viejo City Councils from red to blue.
In every city council, school district, water district and special district that Democrats ran for, they either held or expanded their total number of seats at the dais. For the first time, there will be more Democrats serving across Orange County’s local school boards than Republicans or independents.
Democrats are setting new records for diverse representation. Santa Ana elected two barrier-breaking leaders: Mayor Vicente Sarmiento is the first Bolivian-American elected mayor of a major U.S. city, and Thai Viet Phan is the first Vietnamese-American elected to the city council.
In Santa Ana and Irvine, leaders of color defeated incumbents who had held the seats for more than a quarter of a century. Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan defeated a 26-year incumbent to become the first Muslim woman to lead a major U.S. city, and the first woman of color to lead Irvine.
In 2020, we saw historic expansions of Black leadership in our elections. Richard Hurt is the first Black City Council member to serve in Aliso Viejo. David Crockett is the first Black Trustee elected to the Rancho Santiago Community College Board. Dr. Vicki Calhoun is the first Black female Trustee to serve Fullerton Joint Union High School District. In Tustin, Letitia Clark is the first woman to serve as Mayor in 18 years, and the first Black woman to lead in its history.
This has been years in the making. A decade ago, only 40% of our voters believed that immigrants strengthen our community, according to a Chapman University public opinion research poll. This year, that number jumped by twenty points to a lead of 60%. A decade ago, 50% of our voters believed in climate change. After years of droughts and wildfires, that number has skyrocketed too, to 70%.
Although Orange County’s views have been shifting, Democrats’ victories didn’t happen solely because public opinion is changing. These victories happened because community leaders steadily built the structures necessary to bring Orange County into the future.
The 2020 elections taught a valuable lesson about community-building: Authentic voter conversations matter. My union, UNITE HERE, launched the only national “contactless canvassing” union operation in 2020. We organized contactless canvassing in Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Our canvassers — hospitality workers, cooks and dishwashers who had recently become unemployed due to the pandemic — were trained by an epidemiologist, wore protective gear, and held socially-distanced conversations with voters on sidewalks and patios.
Hundreds of our local UNITE HERE members traveled from Southern California to Arizona to knock doors in 100-degree heat. They knocked on 790,000 doors and made 3,500,000 phone calls, and held deep, meaningful conversations, particularly with underrepresented Latino immigrant communities. It worked: Arizona voted for a Democratic President for the first time in 70 years, and elected Democrat Mark Kelly to the U.S. Senate.
Nationally, we’re missing out on a big story about Latino voters: A massive surge in turnout. In 2020, Latino turnout surged by 63%, which is remarkable when compared to white voter turnout, which only increased by 5%. Latinos overwhelmingly supported Joe Biden. Nationally, Latino support for Joe Biden mirrored similar percentages of support for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Small pockets of Latino voters in Florida and Texas made headlines for swinging slightly toward Donald Trump, but they do not represent the vast majority of Latino voters.
The surge in Latino turnout didn’t happen out of nowhere. Voter relationship-building matters, and we’re seeing a lot of work behind the scenes to connect with Latino communities. Our union worked alongside groups like Lucha, CASE Action, Resist and Rise, Seed the Vote, Sunrise Movement, and other unions who participated in our campaign.
Looking to 2021, Democrats are preparing for an upcoming special election for District 2 on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. The Democratic Party of Orange County endorsed Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley for the Board of Supervisors special election; she is an experienced small business owner and innovative leader in COVID-19 response.
The Board of Supervisors special election is a key opportunity to improve local response to COVID-19. We’ve seen dismal failures on the Republican-majority Board to take COVID-19 seriously. This spring, we have a chance to elect a common-sense leader who can rein in COVID-19 while improving relief for small businesses, homeowners, workers, tenants and families.
The 2020 elections were historic in many ways, and we have many more lessons yet to learn. Keeping an open mind to those lessons is a strong way to prepare for 2022.
Ada Briceño is Chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, a Democratic National Committee Member, and Co-President of UNITE HERE Local 11.
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