Orange County residents enter this year in a unique position to hold their elected officials accountable like never before, with the region turning into one of the nation’s most competitive political environments.

With voter registration numbers now tilting toward Democrats and away from both Republicans and nonpartisan voters, it’s clear that the era of what I call the Astroturf candidate – one who avoids debates, questionnaires, interviews – is coming to an end.

From here on out, politicians in Orange County have to really show up to survive.

Local election tallies increasingly illustrate that trend.

This last election cycle, with the battle for Congress hovering on razor thin margins, both parties played big again in OC, just like they did in 2018, with four congressional districts remaining competitive throughout the season.

This past November, Democrats kept two congressional seats with incumbents Katie Porter and Mike Levin winning re-election by respectable but still tight margins. 

Republicans, in turn, kept Michelle Steel in the coastal seat along with Young Kim in northern OC, again on tight margins. 

But Orange County is changing quickly.

For example, local voters are moving more and more to vote by mail.

Chapman journalism students working with Voice of OC this Fall tabulated those voting trends and came up with some interesting insights showing that residents continue to shift toward vote-by-mail and that voter registration trends have changed radically in the last four years. 

One trend that should be especially alarming to local Republicans, who have enjoyed comfortable voter registration advantages for decades, is the end of that advantage. 

I have continued to report on the increasingly purple nature of Orange County politics and elections, with precinct returns backing that up, election after election. 

[Read: Santana: Welcome to Purple County]

But a figure identified by the Chapman student journalists denotes a different trend recently.

Democrats are gaining more ground registering voters than Republicans. 

And the rate of those voters describing themselves as nonpartisan has dropped off. 

Back in 2018, the county was evenly divided politically with Republicans slightly ahead of Democrats with 34% of registered voters.

At the same time, Democrats represented about 33% of registered voters and nonpartisan voters made up 27%..

But in the ensuing years, those numbers shifted radically.

Democrats increased by four points, going to represent about 37% of registered voters with Republicans going down slightly to 33% . 

The real shift comes from nonpartisan voters, who dropped from 27 to 23% of registered voters.  

In the recent elections at the state and county level, those numbers came through as Orange County Republicans were challenged like never before.

For the first time in recent memory, Orange County’s Board of Supervisors now has a majority of Democrats

And for the first time ever, they won in places like South County with Katrina Foley comfortably edging out local GOP legend Pat Bates in a tight race with big help from the deputy sheriff’s union. 

Now, that’s not to say the county Board of Supervisors now responds to the Democratic Party.

Especially not after former County Supervisors Chairman Doug Chaffee defended his seat against a party-backed challenger

Chaffee, who recently bucked most of his GOP colleagues on pulling out of the OC Power Authority, may end up giving the Board of Supervisors a more balanced perspective as a potential swing vote on key issues. 

The new Orange County Board of Supervisors pose for photos on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. From left: Republicans Andrew Do and Don Wagner, followed by Democrats Doug Chaffee, Katrina Foley and newly-elected Vicente Sarmiento. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Republicans did pull off a big win in Huntington Beach where the council majority will be completely shifting from majority Democrat to majority Republican after all four GOP-endorsed candidates won. 

Voters in two of Orange County’s biggest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, kept their governing councils mixed.

In Anaheim, reformist candidate Carlos Leon defeated resort-backed Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae by just 78 votes out of nearly 10,000 that were cast in that district. 

Across the county, in Santa Ana, high school teacher Benjamin Vazquez, a progressive, beat out police union-backed Councilwoman Nelida Mendoza by just 80 votes. 

In Costa Mesa, incumbent Andrea Marr won by just 78 votes over her opponent, financial advisor John Thomas Patton.

And in Westminster, Republican Amy Phan West won election to the City Council by just 21 votes.

The days of elected officials and candidates being able to phone it in are over.

OC used to be largely a one-sided governing affair dominated by the local GOP, which often created lax regulatory environments.

Voice of OC reporters have witnessed that trend for years with many elected officials. 

Don’t engage with reporters on stories or with the public from the dais or even show up for any sort of local debates sponsored by community groups.  

The trend has gotten worse in recent years. 

That motivated us this past year to set up an online election questionnaire to not only help residents but to effectively challenge office holders to show residents where they stand. 

Much like the podcast interviews we conducted in 2018, we found a pattern. 

Those who engage generally do better with voters, especially in tight races. 

Those who don’t, well…

Consider that in races where margins were tight, Republican challengers to Democratic incumbents who didn’t answer the Voice of OC questionnaire, lost. 

Democratic incumbents who did, won. 

Especially in South County. 

Democratic incumbents Katie Porter and Mike Levin both answered. 

Both won. 

Republican challengers Scott Baugh and Brian Marryott didn’t. 

Both lost. 

A similar pattern played out in the 38th State Senate district.

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakesspear, a Democrat, answered the questionnaire. 

Blakespear won.

Republican Matt Gunderson skipped the questionnaire. 

Gundeson lost. 

In the same district for county supervisor, Republican State Senator Pat Bates skipped the survey. 

Bates lost. 

Democratic OC Supervisor Katrina Foley filled out the questionnaire. 

Foley won. 

In the race for the 67th State Assembly District in North OC, Republican challenger Soo Yoo didn’t answer the questionnaire. 

Incumbent Democrat Sharon Quirk-Silva did. 

Quirk-Silva won.

In one local school board race, I noticed that trend played out in the opposite direction.  

Consider that Orange Unified School District incumbent Kathy Moffat didn’t answer the questionnaire. 

Her challenger, Madison Klovstad-Miner, did.

Klovstad-Miner won by a really tight margin, just a few hundred votes. 

All this shows that the old ways in OC, trying to keep a private conversation going with a few select donors and voters, doesn’t work anymore.

Especially in tight races, which I expect to become the norm. 

The competition to earn OC voters confidence is on like never before. 

The real question is what will residents do with this newfound ability to hold local elected officials accountable?

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