They’ve been a dominant force in Orange County elections for decades.
In the latest November election alone, the Lincoln Club of Orange County has reported nearly $1 million in spending on local races throughout the county, weighing in on campaigns for county supervisor, city council and school board.
But this time around, the club – one of the county’s biggest GOP spending groups – lost the vast majority of its bets.
A whopping 96% of the group’s major spending on local races went to support candidates who ended up losing, or to oppose people who ended up winning, according to the spending disclosures it filed with the county.
The public disclosures filed so far show all of the club’s county committee spending through Oct. 22 and all spending over $1,000 or more since then.
Many of their endorsed candidates fell short as Democrats and independents sailed to victory.
[Click here to see a breakdown of the Lincoln Club’s spending.]
Lincoln Club leaders declined interview requests, instead issuing a statement highlighting their election victories.
“Many candidates who received the Lincoln Club’s endorsement and support won at every level of office. We made inroads, pulling off upset wins in a number of Assembly races, making the pathway to break the supermajority in our reach,” the club said in a statement after Voice of OC contacted its president, Teresa Hernandez.
“The Club’s war chest was deployed countywide sending the message: We will go head to head with the unions. This is just the beginning.”
Out of the $955,000 the club has reported spending on local races, $919,000 went to races where the ultimate outcome was the opposite of Lincoln Club’s spending.
Diane Harkey, a former state Assemblywoman and longtime fixture in local Republican politics, was backed by the county GOP in the June primary for 5th District county supervisor, but was opposed by the Lincoln Club.
The Lincoln Club-backed candidate – former state Sen. Pat Bates – advanced out of the primary but lost in the general election to Democrat Katrina Foley.
In an interview, Harkey said the Lincoln Club didn’t help the party’s efforts by jumping in late and going with negative advertising, and that their leadership is out of touch with the county’s shifting political landscape.
“I think whenever there’s intra-party quibbling, especially at such a late date, and it’s so negative, that it’s hardly productive. I think that they lost a lot of money because they quite honestly jumped in too late, with too little and went all negative,” Harkey told Voice of OC.
“There’s a core group of people who think they’re politicos who have never run for office and don’t understand what it takes,” Harkey added, saying she bids the group “no ill will.”
Harkey said the Lincoln Club should stop trying to play political chess.
“I hope next time they stay out,” she said. “Stay out of picking candidates, and stick to planning parties. Because that’s what they do very well.”
Traditionally, the Lincoln Club have been Orange County’s kingmakers, and have played a big role in local politics since the 1960s.
Made up of business leaders and conservative politicians, the group has counted OC icons like Richard Nixon and John Wayne among its membership, and many of the county’s Republican leaders are current members.
In the 2020 election, ads from the Lincoln Club helped knock Democratic Congressmen Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda out of office, replacing them with Republican Congresswomen Young Kim and Michelle Steel.
It was a high profile retort to the 2018 “blue wave” that saw OC voters oust all of their Republican members of Congress.
But in 2022, the club had a much different story.
Their biggest spending was in the races for Anaheim mayor and 5th District county supervisor, where high-profile Democrats were running for traditionally Republican seats.
The supervisor race was particularly high-stakes – determining whether Republicans lose or hold on to their decades-long majority on the powerful county board.
The group spent nearly $240,000 opposing Foley, the Democrat – the most they spent against any single candidate this year.
And they gave $50,000 to her opponent, Bates, whom the Lincoln Club helped advance out of the June primary against their own party’s backed candidate.
Foley beat Bates 51% to 49%, flipping a Republican-advantaged district to hand Democrats their first board majority since 1980.
In Anaheim, the club spent over $176,000 opposing Ashleigh Aitken, and another $77,000 supporting her challenger Lorri Galloway – both Democrats.
Aitken, who was backed by the OC Democratic party, won the race by nearly 6,000 votes, while Galloway finished in third place.
In Irvine, the club spent nearly $300,000 supporting then-Councilman Anthony Kuo and John Park, who was the chair of the city’s finance commission, in their city council runs last year.
The club spent another $50,000 opposing Councilman Larry Agran.
He won, finishing in first place.
The only city where Lincoln Club candidates swept the board was in Huntington Beach, where Republicans have an 8% voter registration edge over Democrats.
In that instance, unlike in the supervisor race, the Lincoln Club supported the party-backed candidates.
But the club’s spending was far less in Huntington – with the four council candidates and city attorney Michael Gates each supported by $6,761 in spending.
Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor, noted local Republican election efforts have struggled amid splits about whom to back.
One example is the special election in 2020 that saw Foley win her first election as county supervisor over three local Republican elected officials who were running against each other.
The three Republicans collectively got more votes than Foley, but lost because their votes were split.
“That never would have happened 20 years ago – the idea that three Republicans were running with their own endorsements and donors,” Balma said.
“I’m not sure who’s running the Republican Party machine in Orange County.”
Fred Whitaker, the county Republican Party chairman, didn’t respond to a phone call and text message for comment.
The last election shows one of the party’s political giants is out of touch, Balma said.
“I think that the Lincoln Club is controlled by people who don’t have a pulse on the county,” Balma said. “It’s really about knowing the individual cities to know who to back. It doesn’t seem like they’ve picked candidates that voters respond to.”
Harkey said the splits within the local party – along with losses of south county Congressional seats to Katie Porter and Mike Levin – have also crippled Republicans’ ability to perform at the state election level.
“We just periodically have some people who think that they know better, that break it up,” Harkey said. “We don’t have someone to keep people in line.”
“I think Republicans need to learn this is a team sport.”
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.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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