Conservative Republican John Moorlach, a man credited with predicting the 1994 Orange County bankruptcy, has just lost his third consecutive effort to represent residents.
And his election loss along with the election loss of other established Republicans this year like Pat Bates and Scott Baugh is raising questions on whether the old guard of conservative Republicanism that once dominated OC politics is on its way out the door.
At the national level, Republicans are asking similar questions about rebranding following the loss of former president Donald Trump endorsed and controversial candidate Herschel Walker to Democrat Raphael Warnock in the Georgia U.S. Senate runoff election.
Despite Moorlach and Bates losses, other Republicans succeeded in this year’s election in places like Huntington Beach and in other races.
“The results show that we are a purple county and there are pockets of red and pockets of blue,” said Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College.
“Certainly in June, our fiscal conservatives, with high name recognition did really well – Todd Spitzer and Shawn Nelson won those Orange County wide seats.”
Moorlach’s loss in his run to serve as the Mayor of Costa Mesa this year has surprised people like Mike Moodian, a Chapman University public policy professor who closely follows OC politics.
“John Moorlach, who’s been OC’s favorite son going back to the 90s and beloved by the Republican establishment, is losing,” Moodian said in an interview in mid-November.
“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.”
Moorlach himself said in a phone interview last month that the demographics show that people aren’t happy with the Republican party.
“Obviously, if (Joe) Biden takes Orange County, that should tell you something. So sort of writ large,” he said.
This year, 37% of registered voters in Orange County were Democrats while 33% were Republicans. In 2018, 35% of voters were registered Republicans while 33% were registered Democrats, according to the secretary of state website.
“Our voter registration lead continues to move up,” said Ada Briceño, Chairwoman of the Democratic party, in a Tuesday phone interview.
Briceño said there has been a nice shift towards the democratic party in the past few election cycles.
“We had wins in deeper red Orange County, and then on the municipal levels, and we saw continued shifts in North Orange County, which is our bluer area,” she said.
Fred Whittaker, Chairman of the Republican Party of OC, did not respond to request for comment Tuesday.
Moorlach gained notoriety in the 90s after correctly predicting in 1994 that the county was headed for financial disaster months before Orange County filed one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in U.S. history.
Once dubbed a “Chicken Little,” Moorlach was appointed Country Treasurer to bring the County’s finances back on track after the former Country Treasurer Robert Citron resigned and went on to spend a year in prison.
He drove to work with a license plate that reads “Sky Fell” serving for over a decade as Treasurer after successful reelection runs.
From there Moorlach was elected as a County Supervisor in 2006 with about 70% of the vote and won reelection in 2010 – running unopposed.
In 2015, Moorlach moved up to represent OC residents at the state level winning a special election to serve as a State Senator against Don Wagner.
But in 2020, things started to change.
Moorlach lost his reelection bid to Democrat Dave Min which he chalks up to public employee unions spending big on Min.
In 2021, Moorlach lost a special election bid to serve on the County Board of Supervisors to Democrat Katrina Foley. He said he lost that time because of other Republicans joining the race and splitting the ticket.
“The fact that John Moorlach wasn’t the only Republican running in a special election for supervisor shows that the party is certainly not at its peak power. In the 1990s, or even before, there would have been only one,” Balma said.
This year, Moorlach lost to appointed incumbent and Democrat John Stephens in the Costa Mesa mayoral race – conceding to Stephens in November.
Moorlach pointed to various factors for this year’s loss – including Stephens listing himself as an incumbent despite being appointed, the city leaning Democrat and once again public employee unions spending big on his opponent.
“I have a brand but a brand has a half life. A lot of people move and things change and maybe not everybody knows who you are, especially younger people. And maybe, another point would be that maybe experience does not seem to matter to voters,” Moorlach said.
Stephens himself had lost the 2020 reelection run for city council but was appointed by his colleagues as Mayor shortly after Foley beat out Moorlach for the Supervisor seat.
Moorlach isn’t the only established Republican to lose this year.
Republican Pat Bates also lost her run for a supervisor seat to Democrat incumbent Foley. The Republican told Voice of OC in November that she called Foley to congratulate her.
Bates did not respond to a request for comment.
With Bates’ loss, the Orange County Board of Supervisors will have its first Democratic majority in almost 50 years.
“Our biggest win was taking the Board of Supervisors and it’s incredible. It really is. We were waiting for this moment,” Briceno said. “We haven’t been there since 1976.”
Bates herself was a County supervisor from 2007 to 2014 – serving alongside Moorlach.
She helped incorporate Laguna Niguel into a city in 1989 and served on its first city council as the first Mayor, beating out 23 other candidates and getting about 2,500 votes more than the second highest candidate.
She served on the Council until 1998.
In 1998 to 2004, Bates served as a State Assemblymember and after her tenure as a two-term county supervisor she went on to serve in the State Senate representing the 36th district after being elected in 2014.
Three years later, Bates was elected as the leader of the California Republican Senate Caucus.
Stephen Stambough, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor, said in a phone interview last month there’s going to have to be a new era of Republicans to keep up with the changing demographics.
“It’s true for every party, and for every coalition, the talent goes through a political lifecycle,” he said.
“The county has changed. Certain Republicans are going to grow and they’re going to have to speak to changing demographics, to younger voters, to new issues, where it’s not just old Orange County libertarian policies that will only get you so far.”
Stambough said that across the state the Republican brand has become a minor player in California politics.
“If they’re going to grow, they’re going to have to find a different identity and a different dynamic and different policy issues,” he said.
A New Era of Republicans?
Balma questions just who the next generation of the Republican party will be but points to the success Asian American candidates have had in recent elections.
“In 2014, we saw the new Republicans who got elected were all Asian women. It was Michelle Steele, Ling Ling Chang, Lisa Bartlett, Young Kim – all Asian women not young in age but newly elected,” Balma said.
“And it seems like okay, that’s going to be their brand of reaching out to Asian voters.”
Kim beat out Democrat Asif Mahmood this election by almost 40,000 votes in the 40th Congressional with a significant lead since election night.
In Huntington Beach, every candidate endorsed by the county Republican Party won the four open city council seats with the closest competition – Democrat Gina Clayton-Tarvin – over 11,800 votes behind.
This includes controversial candidate Gracey Van Der Mark, who in the past has been criticized as being racist, Islamophobic and anti-semitic. She was also removed from two committees in Huntington Beach’s local school districts.
In 2020, Van Der Mark was the runner up in an election that saw UFC Hall of Famer and Republican Tito Ortiz, another controversial figure, win with the most votes in surf city history.
Among this year’s HB winners is also Tony Strickland, a former state senator and state assemblyman recently selected to serve as Surf City’s Mayor, who Moorlach said he wasn’t so different from.
“There was a different grassroots base in Huntington Beach that got a little more involved,” Moorlach said.
Following three straight losses, Moorlach remains unsure if he will run again.
“When you look at the way the state has changed so dramatically, when you look at Orange County now, and you look at my home city, you realize how difficult it is to run. It’s a lot of work to be a candidate and it’s a big sacrifice,” he said.
“So would I be in the mood to do that again? Probably not. But you never say never.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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