Orange County voters are looking at a highly competitive environment for powerful seats on the county Board of Supervisors – as well as state and Congressional races – as the picture emerges of who advanced out of last week’s primary and onto the November ballot.
“We’re going to see some tight races later this year,” said Chapman University political science professor Mike Moodian, noting highly competitive environments for Congressional and county supervisor seats.
For first time since the 1970s, the powerful county Board of Supervisors could be a competitive policy body – with Democrats vying to take what would be their first majority on the board in more than 40 years.
In two of the supervisor districts – the central 2nd District and north and western 4th District – Democratic candidates are the only ones in the lead to advance to November.
In the 2nd District, it will be a runoff between Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento and Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen. Both are Democrats.
In the 4th District, Democrat Buena Park Mayor Sunny Park made the runoff, while incumbent Democratic Supervisor Doug Chaffee had the number-two slot as of the latest results posted Monday evening.
But it’s still in play, with Republican Brea Councilman Steven Vargas gaining on Chaffee in almost every results update, narrowing the gap to less than one percentage point as of Monday evening.
Park outperformed her own party’s incumbent, meaning Chaffee faces a real threat to his re-election if he makes the runoff.
“I think that’s going to be another very, very competitive race as Chaffee tries to hold onto his seat,” Moodian said.
In the third supervisor race, for south and coastal OC’s 5th District, facing off against Democrat Supervisor Katrina Foley is likely to be state Sen. Pat Bates, who is ahead of fellow Republican Diane Harkey in the latest vote counts.
Foley faces an uphill battle in introducing herself to a newly drawn district that mostly covers areas she hasn’t represented before, Moodian noted.
“[That] could be a very close race later this year, where the county is changing,” he said.
“It’s a purple county now.”
That south county race could determine which party has a majority on the Board of Supervisors – something that can have a major impact on issues like public health and how to prioritize spending between law enforcement and other services.
“During the worst times of the pandemic, oftentimes the great debate between the Republican majority on the board and the Democratic minority was the role of government in enforcing mandates,” Moodian said.
“You’re going to have a split in terms of one side believing that we should put the least amount of burden on business [and] open things up. And then you’re going to have another side that’s probably going to side with stricter public health guidelines.”
Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma noted that in the June primary, voter turnout was low and tilted heavily towards seniors and white voters.
With no major ballot measures, and no exciting top-of-the-ticket races for seats like governor or president, “it was always going to be a low voter turnout election,” Balma said.
“And so when you get low voter turnout, those are different voters than high voter turnout,” she said.
“We’re letting 70 and 80 year-olds decide the future. And I love 70 and 80 year-olds – I’m related to a few,” she added.
“That is not in any way to disparage the people who showed up. But you can tell by the outcome that many [of those who did vote] are voting out of habit, didn’t do research, and voted for incumbency and name recognition. And so you see overwhelmingly, incumbents won.”
In the highly-watched district attorney’s race, incumbent Republican DA Todd Spitzer trounced his well-funded Democratic challenger days after a judge found Spitzer violated a racial bias law when deciding on the death penalty against a Black defedant.
Throughout the last year, Spitzer hammered a campaign theme that he would protect Orange County from the kinds of crime making headlines in LA and San Francisco.
“Spitzer is very good at winning elections, had a gameplan and it worked,” Moodian said.
“He campaigned aggressively against [Democrat Peter] Hardin…in this case I believe that the fear factor worked,” he added.
Spitzer and his campaign team “had a strategy, they were disciplined with that strategy, they were consistent with that strategy, and it worked.”
Orange County also is a key battleground for control of Congress, as well as whether Democrats have a supermajority in Sacramento to completely control the making of state laws.
In the 47th District, Democrat incumbent Katie Porter will be facing off in November against Republican Scott Baugh – while in the 49th District, voters will be choosing between incumbent Democrat Mike Levin and Republican Brian Maryott.
And in the 45th District, Republican incumbent Michelle Steel is set to face off against Democrat Jay Chen.
“We’re going to continue to see competitive elections in Orange County as it relates to Congressional seats,” Moodian said.
OC is now “at the center of the political universe again,” declared the San Francisco Chronicle in a recent article, citing estimates that upwards of $35 million will be spent in just two of OC’s congressional races that are expected to be key to which party will control Congress.
For state Senate races, Democrat incumbent Tom Umberg will face off against Republican Rhonda Shader in the 34th District, Republican Janet Nguyen will face off against Democrat Kim Carr in the 36th District, and Democrat Catherine Blakespear will face off against Republican Matt Gunderson in the 38th District.
State Assembly matchups feature Republican Soo Yoo against incumbent Democrat Sharon Quirk Silva in the 67th District, Democrat Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen against Republican Tri Ta in the 70th District, Democrat Judie Mancuso against Diane Dixon in the 72nd District, and incumbent Democrat Cottie Petrie-Norris against Steven Choi in the 73rd District.
Also on the ballot in November will be contests for city councils, mayors, and school boards – including open mayor seats in Santa Ana and Anaheim – though candidates can’t yet file to run for those seats.
For a complete list of election results from the June primary, check out the OC Registrar of Voters results page (for county-only races) and California Secretary of State results (for Congressional, state Senate and state Assembly races that cross multiple counties).
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Steven Vargas is a councilman in Brea, not La Habra.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.