by Jeremy B. White
It’s official: California’s Orange County is Democratic territory.
Punctuating a political sea change, registered Democrats now outnumber card-carrying Republicans in a onetime bastion of the withering California Republican Party. The shift, decades in the making, both underscores the Republican Party’s free fall in the largest U.S. state and offers a warning to national Republicans in a time of rapid demographic change.
For years, the county has been a mainstay of Republican power in California, helping to launch the careers of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan while serving as an incubator for socially conservative values and economically conservative policies, a reliable source of Republican votes and a wellspring of campaign cash from a wealthy populace.
There are 179 more registered Democrats than Republicans, according to an update released by the Orange County Registrar of Voters Wednesday morning. On the eve of the 2018 election, Republicans retained a roughly 18,000-vote advantage. And now Democrats are feeling optimistic that the county could be a harbinger of similar changes in long-red states with booming populations of Latino and young voters.
That history meant that a disastrous 2018 election for California Republicans, in which Democrats flipped seven formerly GOP House seats, yielding a once-unimaginable outcome: There is not a single Republican representing Orange County, which lies between Los Angeles and San Diego, in Congress.
Those results came as a gut punch to the beleaguered state party, which has been relegated to superminority status in the Legislature and shut out of statewide office. But the transformation of Orange County has been a gradual process paralleling California as a whole shading evermore blue.
During the Orange County GOP’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, when Republicans were migrating there en masse from places like Los Angeles, “you couldn’t print registration forms fast enough to keep up with Republican demand,” said former Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh. “But when the demographics started changing aggressively, there was a direct correlation with the voter registration numbers.”
“If you look at demographics going forward, the folks who are going to be registering in the next five to 10 years are not people that overwhelmingly vote Republican, so the challenge is not going to get easier,” Baugh said, though he noted a glimmer of hope in Democratic dominance given that Republicans in California rebounded from a post-Watergate nadir as they saw “liberal policies out of Sacramento switch the momentum.”
Changes in Orange County have paralleled those in the California electorate writ large, where Republican registration has shriveled as more voters shy away from parties altogether — this year, no-party-preference voters eclipsed registered Republicans to become the state’s second-largest cohort.
The electoral results have followed. In 2016, Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump in Orange County by more than 100,000 votes; in 2018, now-Gov. Gavin Newsom became the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in decades to take the county when he edged out Republican John Cox by a few thousand votes.
Two related trends are driving the shift, said Fred Smoller, a professor of politics at Chapman University in Orange County: an increase in liberal-leaning blocs like young and Latino voters on the one hand, and the diminishment of “old white males who came here from the Midwest” who are moving elsewhere or dying.
But he argued that Trump’s ascension has exacerbated the party’s woes. And he said political trends there should offer a cautionary tale for national Republicans, as with the suburban, white Orange County women who followed counterparts in other states by electing Democrats in 2018.
“It has implications for places like Texas, with a growing Latino electorate,” he said. “Orange County is a microcosm of the United States in many ways, particularly with suburban women. It is a bellwether in this regard.”
While there’s no shortage of GOP challengers hoping to claw back Orange County congressionalseats next year, the likelihood of elevated 2020 turnout — with California liberals energized by widespread animus toward Trump — means Republicans had their work cut out for them even before they were surpassed by Democrats. Some Republicans viewed as strong contenders have passed on running, including Baugh, the former county party chairman.
Republican Party of Orange County Executive Director Randall Avila told POLITICO that the registration flip was a “long time coming,” citing both changing demographics and California shifting its voting system with initiatives like automatic registration, but he said Republicans could win back a “purple county” by turning out Republicans and prying unaffiliated voters away from Democrats.
“It’s really a fight for no-party-preference voters now,” he said, and that means “we’ve got to change a few things on the way we outreach to voters,” including doing “a better job of reaching out to more folks like me,” a 29-year-old Latino.
But Republicans will be vying with energized and cash-flush Democrats who are working to expand their already-overwhelming majority in the Legislature by pushing into Republican terrain — including multiple Orange County state legislative districts. After opening an Irvine office for the 2018 midterms, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has deployed field managers to shore up the party’s gains by registering voters and organizing activists.
Local Democrats aren’t just focused on protecting vulnerable first-term House members like Reps. Harley Rouda and Katie Porter, Democratic Party of Orange County Chairwoman Ada Briceño told POLITICO. She said party activists are working to make inroads on the local level, down to school boards, as part of a larger effort to sustain their 2018 gains with a bench of new leaders.
“I believe that the 2018 victory really paved the way for us to continue transforming Orange County,” Briceño said, eyeing the bigger picture.
“We need to move this momentum, as we did in Orange County,” to “places like Texas and Arizona,” she said. “We want to work in collaboration with other spaces and say this is possible, doing it one red voter at a time.”
Jeremy B. White co-writes the California Playbook and covers politics in the Golden State for POLITICO.