This election could see either Republicans hold on to a slim majority of the Orange County Board of Supervisors or Democrats take control for the first time in nearly 50 years.
“For the first time since the Nixon administration, will Democrats have a majority on the Board of Supervisors? Or will Republicans hold on?” said Mike Moodian, a Chapman University public policy professor who closely follows OC politics.
Supervisors control pandemic response, homeless programs and law enforcement spending, to name a few critical areas.
And $8 billion in annual taxpayer dollars.
So far, the results are tight.
In the key race that will decide that question, Democrat Katrina Foley had an initial 57%-43% lead on election night over Republican Pat Bates.
But it collapsed to a thin margin of 51.0-to-49.0% by the end of the night, after Election Day votes were counted for the 5th District seat. At that point 147,910 votes had been counted.
Since then, Foley has seen her lead grow slightly as more ballots are counted. In the latest update, from Saturday night, she was leading with 51.35% of the vote with 184,419 ballots counted so far.
It’s unclear where it will go from here.
Hundreds of thousands of ballots remain to be counted across the county. Most are mail-in ballots that were dropped off in person or put in the mail in the last couple days of voting.
And at this point after the June primary, nearly half of all ballots in OC had yet to be counted.
The 5th District race – centered on coastal and south OC – isn’t the only one that’s close.
The key 2nd District race – centered on central county cities like Santa Ana and Anaheim – is teetering on an extremely tight edge.
Santa Ana Mayor Vicente Sarmiento – who’s backed by plaintiffs’ attorneys who sue police departments over shootings – saw his early lead over Garden Grove Councilwoman Kim Bernice Nguyen flip after most Election Day ballots were counted.
But in the update last Wednesday – the day after the election – Nguyen, who was backed by the sheriff’s deputies union, led 50.1% to Sarmiento’s 49.9%.
It has since flipped again, with Sarmiento leading 50.4% to Nguen’s 49.6% as of the latest update.
And in the northern 4th District, incumbent Supervisor Doug Chaffee had a large lead of 56% to 44% against fellow Democrat Sunny Park, the mayor of Buena Park.
But the outcome of Foley and Bates’ race will shape which party controls the county board.
The fact that elections have become so close is a sign of how Orange County has been shifting from a red county to a purple one.
“Obviously in the 90s, Republicans had a major voter registration advantage. And then every year, Democrats have been chipping away at that” until it flipped a few years ago, Moodian said.
He doesn’t expect OC to become a solid blue county any time soon, like the solid red county it was in the past.
“There still is a strong Republican Party in OC. And Orange County now looks like much of the rest of the country…It’s a purple county. And I think it’s going to be a purple county for the foreseeable future,” Moodian said.
This election has featured some unusual twists in the Board of Supervisors races.
In the Foley-Bates race that will decide the board’s fate, the powerful county sheriff’s deputies’ union is spending big in backing the Democrat – and attacking the Republican.
That came despite conventional wisdom that law enforcement unions are most closely aligned with Republican candidates.
The next results update is scheduled for Monday at 5 p.m.
Here’s a rundown of the races:
5th District Supervisor
This south and coastal district includes Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, southern Irvine, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Laguna Woods, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Coto de Caza and Ladera Ranch.
Will Democrats or Republicans control the $8 billion county government?
It all comes down to this hard-fought race.
Voters in coastal and south OC had the power to decide who will control decisions around local law enforcement, mental health, homelessness and public health.
Foley was backed by her Democratic Party as well as the unions representing county sheriff’s deputies, health and social service employees.
She faced off against Republican state Sen. Pat Bates, who was backed by the OC Republican Party and one of the biggest conservative donor groups around, the Lincoln Club of Orange County.
The sheriff’s deputies union spent over $314,000 on ads for Foley, and at least $138,000 against Bates.
And the Orange County Employees Association, which represents two-thirds of county government workers, spent at least $289,000 supporting Foley and $382,000 against Bates.
The conservative Lincoln Club spent over $239,000 on ads against Foley, and around $50,000 supporting Bates.
2nd District Supervisor
This central county district covers central and eastern Anaheim, as well as Santa Ana, East Garden Grove, Orange and Tustin.
For the first time in history, Latinos were a majority of voters for a seat on the county’s powerful Board of Supervisors.
And the choice came down to two Democrats who advanced out of the June primary.
Sarmiento was endorsed by the OC Democratic Party, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Supervisor Katrina Foley.
Nguyen was endorsed by the county sheriff’s deputies’ union, as well as Republican OC Supervisor Andrew Do and Congresswoman Katie Porter (D-Irvine).
She was supported by a wave of ads financed by the sheriff’s deputies union, which spent over $460,000 promoting her and attacking Sarmiento.
It was the most any group spent on any OC supervisor candidate this election.
In contrast to the roughly $520,000 in total spent for her by the deputies’ union and the DA prosecutors’ union, Sarmiento drew only about $170,000 in unrestricted expenditures, known as “IEs.”
Much of Sarmiento’s largest funding came from attorneys who have represented the family of Brandon Lopez – a cousin of Santa Ana Councilman Johnathan Hernandez who was shot and killed in Santa Ana by Anaheim police in September.
The attorneys are the Alhambra-based law firm of Sarmiento’s sister, Vicki Sarmiento, as well as Woodland Hills-based Dale Galipo, who has sued on behalf of families of people killed by police in Santa Ana and Anaheim.
Nguyen ran on tackling the homelessness crisis and said she’s the only candidate with direct experience working with county agencies and the public health care plan CalOptima.
Sarmiento pointed to his leadership of one of the largest cities in California along with his efforts during the COVID pandemic for rent relief and boosting vaccination access.
4th District Supervisor
This north county district covers all or part of Fullerton, West Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, La Habra, Placentia and Stanton.
In this election, voters in north and west OC were faced with a rarity in local politics:
A party turning on their own incumbent.
Chaffee has come under fire from Democratic Party leaders for too often siding with his Republican colleagues on key issues like banning health officials from joining coronavirus news conferences.
He’s also sided with Republicans on decisions like mask mandates and trying to reset all of the supervisors’ term limits with a ballot measure that was widely condemned from across the political spectrum as misleading.
His challenger, Park, was backed by the party.
Chaffee pointed to his long experience in both city and county government, as well as his efforts to add homeless shelter beds and permanent supportive housing and supporting the creation of a mental health campus known as Be Well OC.
Chaffee got major financial support from the county sheriff’s deputies’ union, which spent at least $310,000 promoting him.
Park did not appear to get major support from interest groups through the mechanism they use for unrestricted spending, known as independent expenditure or “IE” committees..
Park pointed to her endorsements from the Democratic Party, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and unions representing county firefighters and hotel workers.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.