A contentious special election for an open seat on the powerful Orange County Board of Supervisors so far has largely played out as a behind-the-scenes affair. 

Up until now, much of the movement has been private, with candidates and political party leaders jockeying for support from donors and community groups.

But this next week, the election goes public. 

Supervisors are expected to take a public vote to ratify March 9 as the official election date. Mail-in voting would start about a month earlier, on Feb. 8.

The winner will replace Republican Michelle Steel – who was just sworn into Congress.

At stake is whether Republicans can maintain their 4-1 supermajority on the board, or if Democrats can craft a more competitive 3-2 dynamic on the dais.

Registered voters in the coastal 2nd District seat will be able to cast a ballot from Feb. 8 through March 9, according to the official schedule published after Steel resigned Sunday to be sworn into Congress.

The race has drawn at least three Republicans – John Moorlach, Kevin Muldoon and Mike Posey – and one Democrat, Katrina Foley. Fountain Valley Mayor Michael Vo also reportedly has shown interest in running, but didn’t return phone and email messages.

Republican and Democratic Party leaders have each declared the race a massive priority heading into 2021. And they’re trying to coalesce their voters around their endorsed candidates, Moorlach and Foley, respectively.

“Early 2021 will be an election year in Orange County just like 2019. Just like 2019 when we directed the Republican vote to Don Wagner, we will elect John Moorlach to the Board of Supervisors and save our majority with the same aggressive field and digital efforts we used to win in 2020 and past special elections,” Orange County GOP Chairman Fred Whitaker said in a recent message to party members.

“The Orange County we know and love is under attack. A strong and capable local Republican Party is critical to preserving our home. I hope you’ll join me in this fight.”

Democrats are also sounding the alarms about what’s at stake.

“There’s nothing more present and center in the minds of folks than what’s happening in this pandemic. And it is devastating, the fact that the Board of Supervisors has not put science front and center, and the health of its residents front and center,” said Ada Briceño, chairwoman of the Orange County Democratic Party.

“There’s nothing more important to ending this pandemic than having somebody who believes in science on that board of supervisors. And so we will do everything we can – we are speaking with one voice, all hands on deck – to make sure that Katrina Foley is the next supervisor in that district.”

The election outcome will have a big impact on the board’s debates this year around the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the maps that decide which voters are in each supervisor’s district. Supervisors have a mid-December deadline to approve the final maps.

Moorlach, who used to represent the district, has said it’s important for Republicans to rally around him to help prevent the seat from falling into Democrats’ hands.

In an interview with Voice of OC, he said focus lately has been on fundraising.

“We just worked on raising funds through the end of the year, which is always interesting during Christmas,” Moorlach said.

Foley said she’s excited to now have a target date for the election.

“We just are overwhelmed by the hundreds of volunteers that are reaching out to us, unsolicited, to try to get involved in our campaign,” Foley told Voice of OC on Tuesday.

The other known candidates didn’t make themselves available for interviews in response to phone messages.

The 2nd District vacancy has been expected since Steel succeeded in flipping the 48th Congressional District from Democrat Harley Rouda in the November election.

While Election Day is scheduled for March 9, it will be the final day of about a month of voting.

Under the official schedule, voters can cast mail-in ballots as soon as Feb. 8. Some in-person vote centers are scheduled to open starting Feb. 27, with the rest joining starting March 6.

Last month, the county Republican Party endorsed Moorlach, the former state senator who used to represent the 2nd District on the Board of Supervisors. Moorlach, who famously predicted the county’s 1994 bankruptcy, most recently served in the state Senate until he was defeated in November.

At least two other Republicans have been running for the seat as well – both of whom have resources and name recognition in the district.

And both of them – Posey and Muldoon – have said they’re not backing down.

“Right now I’m in it all the way,” Posey, a Huntington Beach councilman told Voice of OC in an interview after OC Republicans endorsed Moorlach.

“I am a candidate that will bring people together, rather than divide,” Muldoon, a Newport Beach councilman said in a text message to Voice of OC last month.

“With the state forcing the early release of prisoners and dangerous calls for defunding the police, it is now that we must unite to protect the safety and prosperity of our community,” he added.

Muldoon and Posey confirmed to Voice of OC on Tuesday that they’re still in the race.

The opposition ads have already kicked off.

The county Republican Party has sent out a mass email saying Democrats “endorsed far-left liberal Katrina Foley,” on a platform of “defunding our police, shutting down Orange County businesses and raising your taxes to pay for her out of control spending.”

“A win for Democrats will pull them one seat closer to flipping the entire Board of Supervisors,” the party wrote.

“We need all hands on deck to stop the blue wave from returning in 2021,” the party added, calling Moorlach “a skilled, pragmatic and principled legislator. His experience will help guide Orange County through this pandemic, fight back against Governor Newsom’s endless shutdown orders and protect our way of life.”

Democrats punched back.

“In this year’s election, the Republican Party put all its chips down on a strategy of enabling the worst instincts and most destructive tendencies of Donald Trump,” said Foley campaign spokesman Derek Humphrey. 

“They lost, and voters in Orange County’s 2nd supervisorial district rejected Donald Trump…I don’t think the rhetoric coming from the Republican Party is all that accurate or relevant right now.”

“It’s incredible that [Republicans] would say stuff like that given that the only thing that she’s done is advocate for our safety during COVID-19,” said Briceño, the Democratic Party chair. “They should be advocating for our health and making sure that we’re safe.”

Meanwhile, Moorlach is staying out of the fray, saying he’s staying focused on fundraising.

Republicans have a 5 percentage-point advantage in voter registration in the 2nd District, which includes the cities of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Cypress, Seal Beach, Stanton, Buena Park, Los Alamitos, and La Palma, and unincorporated Rossmoor.

The voter registration breakdown is 38% Republican, 33% Democrat and 29% with no party preference or members of smaller parties.

The election comes as the county finds itself at a crossroads on how to manage a fiscal crisis during the pandemic with sales tax revenues plummeting just as health and human services needs have risen sharply.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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