While much of the attention has been on Orange County’s larger elections like Congress and the Board of Supervisors, the results and turnout in the county’s smaller cities show the county is only growing more politically competitive as time goes on.
Democrats won a few big seats in some of the smaller cities, touting victories like that of Stephanie Oddo, who’s poised to become the first endorsed Democrat on the Laguna Niguel council dais in the city’s history alongside four Republicans.
In Seal Beach, Stephanie Wade is in the lead to become one of, if not the first, transgender woman to win office in Orange County, taking over the city’s newly drawn third district.
However, if she fails to make it to 50% of the vote, there will be a runoff election in January to determine who wins the seat.
In an interview with Voice of OC, Chapman University political science Professor Mike Moodian said Wade’s election represented a fast turnaround in a county which voted to ban same sex marriage in 2008 with nearly 60% of the vote.
“This just goes to show you how far the movement for equal rights and human rights, particularly of the LGBTQ movement, has come in a short amount of time,” Moodian said. “One can run and be open about how they are and be able to win a seat on an elected city council. It’s a sign of progress.”
In many cities, incumbents also struggled to make it through reelection this year.
As of last week, Orange Mayor Mark Murphy was narrowly losing his reelection campaign against realtor and former city councilman Dan Slater after a political career that’s spanned nearly 30 years.
Laguna Beach Councilman Peter Blake finished second to last, losing to Councilwoman Sue Kempf and Alex Rounaghi after he was censured for insulting members of the public and fellow council members. Blake won in 2018 by a wide margin.
Over his four-year term, Blake faced increasing backlash from residents for things he’s said from the dais.
“It just takes 4-5,000 votes to win and it shows you that upsets like that can happen, so take that and the negative publicity and it can lead to a loss in cities in Laguna Beach,” Moodian said.
Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College, emphasized the impact that local elections have in a community.
“Local elections are hugely important and sometimes decided by just a few votes,” Balma said in a phone interview Nov. 21. “So, when we talk about ‘every vote matters,’ that’s really true in school boards and city councils.”
In San Clemente, it’s unclear if Councilman Steve Knoblock will win reelection, with his race neck and neck as of Monday evening’s results with less than 100 votes between him and the closest competition.
Knoblock was originally elected in 2020 to serve out the remainder of former Mayor Dan Bane’s four year term, and is most well known for his controversial proposal to make the city a “sanctuary for life,” banning any abortion providers from operating in the city, a proposal the rest of the council voted down.
Knoblock’s reelection will also decide whether or not the city maintains a conservative majority, with his closest competition endorsed by the county Democratic Party.
Balma pointed out that across Orange County, the winners came down to less than a dozen votes in some races, such as the District 1 city council race in Westminster, where Amy Phan West was up by only ten votes on Nov. 21.
“The decisions really are made by a really small number of people who turn up and vote, especially with the districts that divide up our cities,” Balma said.
When asked for the biggest takeaways from this year’s election, Moodian pointed to John Moorlach’s failed mayoral campaign against incumbent mayor John Stephens.
Moorlach was once a state senator, but has now lost campaigns for the senate, county board of supervisors and mayoral race in the last two years, after decades as one of the county’s mainstay politicians who Moodian described as “Orange County’s favorite son.”
“That just shows how much time has changed. For decades, Moorlach was this beloved figure in the Republican Party who’s now losing a race for mayor in his hometown,” Moodian said.
This story was updated to reflect that while Stephanie Wade is currently leading in Seal Beach, the election could proceed to a runoff if she does not make it to 50% of the vote.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a Groundtruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
And since you’ve made it this far,
You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.