Orange County Supervisor Doug Chaffee – under fire from his own Democratic Party for often siding with his Republican colleagues – is inching closer to a rarity in local politics: potentially losing his seat ahead of November’s election.
As ballots from last week’s election keep getting counted, Chaffee has seen his second-place lead narrowing, with Republican Brea City Councilman Steven Vargas just now 0.7 percentage points behind Chaffee.
That’s down significantly from Chaffee’s 11-point lead in the first election night results and 2 points at the end of election night.
Only the top two vote-getters in the June primary advance to the November general election. In first place is Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park, who was endorsed by the OC Democratic Party.
As of Tuesday evening, Chaffee was leading Vargas by 611 votes, with about 50,000 ballots still left to count from across the county.
Chaffee didn’t return a phone call and text message for comment Tuesday.
He’s drawn ire from many of his own party leaders for siding with Republican fellow supervisors over the years on key issues like mask mandates and trying to reset all of their term limits with a ballot measure that would have described it simply as a “lifetime ban” of three terms.
“I couldn’t be happier with where we’re at,” said OC Democratic Party Chair Ada Briceño said in reaction to the results showing Chaffee close to potentially losing his seat.
“Whether we face off [in November] with Supervisor Chaffee, or Vargas, I’m feeling super good moving on to November,” she added.
Many of Chaffee’s votes as supervisor “trouble some Democrats,” Briceño previously told Voice of OC.
“There are many that folks refer to and are upset about,” she said. “The lack of him standing up for [former county health officer Dr. Nichole] Quick at a crucial time when our health care experts needed support was shocking.”
“The beach closures, resetting the term limits, and criticizing Katrina Foley publicly about her [coronavirus] briefings. And in fact, I remember that he also pulled her ability to have health officials on those press conferences,” she added.
“That and many other things were very troubling for Democrats.”
The amount of party resources that pour into the November race for this seat will be largely shaped by whether Chaffee or Vargas make the runoff, said Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma in an interview Wednesday.
“The Democratic Party will have a lot of fights and torn loyalties if Sunny Park and Doug Chaffee advance to November … a tremendous amount of resources, a tremendous amount of money will be poured into these elections,” Balma said.
“This election showed that both the Democrats and Republicans of Orange County are going through changes. There are splits within the parties,” she added, noting the recent primary battle between Republican Congresswoman Young Kim and her Republican challenger Greg Raths.
It’s “very rare” for a party to endorse against their own incumbent like Democrats did against Chaffee, Balma told Voice of OC in an earlier interview.
“In races [like county supervisor] where we have term limits, and particularly in races where there are only two terms … there’s sort of an unwritten code that people wait their turn. That the party endorses their incumbent,” Balma said.
“I think it sends a message,” she added.
“[It’s] a cautionary tale to any other Democrats who believe that they could take the endorsement of the Democratic Party and then align themselves against Democratic Party interests.”
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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