Orange Crush: Inside the GOP Struggle to Hold the Southern California Suburbs

- Maret 11, 2018

MISSION VIEJO, Calif.—In a hilly, tucked-away neighborhood in this city, full of dogwalkers and SUVs and neatly trimmed front lawns, American flags flap outside the front doors, and nary a fence—white picket or otherwise—can be seen. Not long ago, a pair of canvassers for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to Paul Ryan that is dedicated to keeping the House of Representatives in Republican hands, visited the homes of everyone here who isn’t a registered Democrat. They just wanted to ask the locals if Rep. Mimi Walters, a second-term Republican, has their support, they explained, and to leave behind a sunny-looking door-hanger that touts her record. It probably seemed innocuous. But the canvassers were a symbol of radical, unpredictable turmoil. They were messengers of a quiet apocalypse they’re hoping to stop.

All is not well for the Republicans of Orange County. If it were, the door knockers wouldn’t be knocking on these particular doors, or many others across California’s third most populous county. The long-term demographic shifts that have basically doomed the Republican Party throughout the rest of the state may finally have reached the GOP’s prized California hideaway. And in Washington, the Republican Party is led by a man whose crass style of politics clashes with the sensibilities of the chinos-and-mimosas conservatives and sandals-and-surfboards libertarians who still run this place.

Republicans hold four of the county’s six congressional seats. There’s buttoned-up Ed Royce, the quintessential Southern California Republican, who is retiring after 26 years on the job. To his southeast, Walters is facing the fight of her political career. To her west lies Dana Rohrabacher, a Democratic target partially thanks to special counsel Robert Mueller’s interest in him and his chats with Julian Assange. And, down the coast, voters are saying good-bye to Darrell Issa, who’s ditching Congress after barely squeaking by to re-election in 2016.

Today less than half white, roughly one-third Latino, and nearly one-fifth Asian American, Orange County would appear from the outside to be a reasonable target for Democrats. At least 18 serious Democrats are running for one of the four Republican seats. The county is heavily, and famously, suburban, and the GOP is losing ground fast in areas like it: Donald Trump in 2016 became the third straight Republican presidential nominee to fall short of 50 percent in the suburbs nationwide. When Hillary Clinton won Orange County by beating Trump in 2016, she became the first Democrat to do so in 80 years, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected with 61 percent of the national vote.

Millions of people watch The Real Housewives of Orange County, notes Gil Cisneros, a naval veteran turned lottery winner turned philanthropist who’s now one of at least six Democrats running for the seat soon to be vacated by Royce. “That paints the image of being this affluent, white community,” Cisneros says. “Parts of it are. But that’s not the majority of the county.” The caricature of a lily white, country club-lined Orange County is out-of-date. The territory far more accessible to Democrats than most outsiders realize.

When I asked Walters if her race is competitive, her answer was a straightforward “No.” She doesn’t buy that her seat is up for grabs, and she insisted that tax cuts are the reason Republicans are going to win in this hotbed of fiscal conservatism, not to mention keep their majority.

“We’re still very much a Republican county,” Walters said, pointing to the margins in local congressional races over the last few elections. “They”—Democrats—“think just because Hillary Clinton won these districts that they can win, and I don’t subscribe to that same idea. If you look at my race, I got 37,000 more votes than Donald Trump did.”

But to many of the state’s top GOP strategists, lawmakers, and donors, 2016’s results sent a distinctly different signal. “The canary is coughing,” said Sean Walsh, an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson for decades. “I’m sorry, but you’re deluding yourself if you don’t think there’s some sort of dynamic that's occurring in those districts.”


When he chose Fountain Valley to kick off his 1984 re-election campaign after the Republican convention, Ronald Reagan shone a spotlight on Orange County, a coastal strip that was largely well-off, stacked with retirees and military families, and nearly 80 percent white. Just 10 years earlier, when Yorba Linda’s Richard Nixon landed back home after resigning the presidency, 5,000 locals greeted him. Starting in 1940, the county—whose local airport is named after John Wayne—voted Republican in 19 straight presidential elections.

For decades, this area just outside of Los Angeles, stretching from La Habra in the north to San Clemente in the south, was something of a laboratory for conservative ideology. Orange County birthed Nixon and provided Barry Goldwater with some of his staunchest support in 1964. Democrats’ inability to make headway here for years earned the area its nickname: “The Orange Curtain.”

The curtain is fraying. When Royce surprised Republican leaders on Capitol Hill by announcing his retirement on a Monday afternoon in early January, they immediately wondered if the seat he’d held since 1992 was salvageable, multiple GOP campaign pros tasked with saving the district now acknowledge. Over the quarter-century Royce has served in Congress, rising to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, his district changed considerably: It’s now even more highly educated, and it’s two-thirds nonwhite after years of rapid Latino and Asian American growth. In the roughly half of Royce’s territory that fits into Orange County, the Republican registration advantage is down to around 2,000 voters. “This is the kind of district that will tell us whether we have a big fight or a little fight on our hands,” concedes Ohio congressman Steve Stivers, who’s tasked this year with maintaining the House majority as the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman.

Thirty-five years ago, Orange County was around 15 percent Hispanic. It’s more than a third Latino now. (That group is expected to become its biggest within the next 10 years.) Local Republicans point to 1996, when Democrat Loretta Sanchez unseated GOP Rep. Bob Dornan, as their first warning sign. But their troubles go beyond the two-pronged disaster in the rest of the state—explosive Latino growth and Republican toxicity after 1994’s anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187. Local moderates have departed the party in droves. That trend accelerated with the rise of Trump.

In 1992, Republicans’ registration advantage over Democrats in Orange County was roughly 18 points. By 2016, that margin was 4 percent. Voters who decline to side with any party now make up nearly one quarter of the county. Many of them are the exact kind of upper-middle class suburbanites who for years typified Orange County. Now, they can’t stand Trump.

“It clearly is changing,” says Irvine mayor Donald Wagner, a former Republican state assemblyman. “You can’t look at the numbers and be oblivious of that.” Wagner presides over a majority-minority city that’s nearly 40 percent Asian American. Behind his desk are framed pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II and Reagan.

“There is a component of dislike for the president here, and that’s fueling some of it,” he says. “Take that out of the equation—” Wagner sighs, and stops himself. “You can’t in ’18,” he concedes. “Who knows what ’20 holds—and it’s different. But you can’t take that out of the equation.” Trump’s face isn’t on the door-hangers that Ryan’s super PAC, which has field offices throughout southern California, leaves at homes in districts like Walters’. And when California’s Republican leaders asked for high-profile help last year, it was Vice President Mike Pence, not Trump, who swung by the area for October fundraisers.

“The loneliest place in Orange County is for Republicans who are trying to figure out where to go next,” said Brian Forde, a Republican turned Obama White House tech advisor who’s now challenging Walters. “They feel totally abandoned.”

Even so, in March, more than 1,000 locals gathered in Huntington Beach for a rally to support the president that ended in four arrests when they scrapped with counter-protestors. Three months later, in the same Fountain Valley park where Reagan formally announced his re-election campaign, and where a statue of Reagan now stands, 300 Trump fans held another rally.

Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley fall in Rohrabacher’s district, the whitest, wealthiest, most #MAGA-friendly of the bunch. The national Republican Party is counting on Rohrabacher’s local profile, established during 15 congressional terms, to overwhelm his downsides: namely, his unabashed Russophilia at time when the president is under suspicion for his dealings with Moscow.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly blocked Rohrabacher from talking to Trump, and one of Rohrabacher’s opponents, Harley Rouda, wrote to the FBI to flag the incumbent’s August 2017 meeting with Julian Assange. In that session, the congressman has said, he tried to arrange a deal to let Assange escape legal trouble for publishing U.S. government secrets in exchange for evidence that Russia was not WikiLeaks’ source for its trove of emails stolen from Democrats during the 2016 campaign.

Yet if national Republicans are confident about any of the Orange County districts, it’s Rohrabacher’s. A surfer and a passionate advocate of loosened restrictions on marijuana, he has long followed his own muse, a pattern that dates to a 1980s trip to Afghanistan to join a rebel infantry fighting Soviets just after his first election. As national reinforcements fly into California to save Republicans’ House majority, Rohrabacher is being used as an example of how candidates can establish local brands that can overwhelm the daily headlines coming out of the West Wing—as long as Mueller doesn’t get in the way.

Still, recent polling shows Rohrabacher in trouble: One mid-January survey revealed that nearly 9 in 10 of his constituents who disapprove of Trump say they’re unlikely to vote for Rohrabacher. And research conducted by the local Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin late last year, and shared with me, showed that Trump’s approval rating was 17 points underwater in Rohrabacher’s district, and 15 in Royce’s. Trump, Tulchin says, dominated each of the focus groups he ran in Orange County throughout 2017.

But it’s Issa, not Rohrabacher, who was blown down by the national winds before any votes were cast. Anchored in San Diego County, Issa’s district is split between fired-up Democrats and the traditional conservatives in southern Orange County who carried him to a 1,600-vote victory in 2016—the closest race in the country. Four serious Democratic contenders entered the race this time, and Issa—a car security system mogul and former House Oversight Committee chairman—got the message. One day after Royce announced he would retire at the end of the year, Issa did the same.


The mood on the Republican side of Capitol Hill was dark the day Issa pulled the plug on his D.C. career. “There’s no putting lipstick on that: They’re both competitive districts,” Stivers told POLITICO of Royce’s and Issa’s retirements. Another Ohio Republican congressman conceded to the Washington Post that the atmosphere was starting to remind him of 2006, the last time Democrats were on the right side of a wave election that handed them the House.

Still, as national Republicans fret, local GOP operatives scoff at the idea that Democrats will manage to pick up any seats here. “They think we’re the new battleground,” laughs Fred Whitaker, the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. “There are four Republican-held seats here, and there will be four Republican-held seats here after the 2020 election. It’s a Hail Mary play. It’s desperation.”

“Let the Democrats spend tens of millions of dollars here,” he added. “Let them die on the hill in Orange County.”

To local Republicans, the idea that lifelong conservatives—even the droves who've left their party in recent years—would suddenly vote for a Democrat is folly. Walters’ and Rohrabacher’s 17-point victories in 2016 came even as Clinton beat Trump in their districts, after all. Plenty of one-time Republicans may now be independents, sure, but they’re far from liberals. The area is changing, they admit, just not as fast as Democrats think, especially with the rightward bent of many in the Asian American population. Democrats’ over-exuberance is pushing their party untenably far to the left for the area’s economic conservatives, they say, pointing to primaries in which each Democratic candidate has backed a Bernie Sanders-style single-payer health care system.

Then there’s California’s quirky primary system, where only the top two vote-getters—across all parties—compete in November’s general election. A candidate glut threatens to split the Democratic vote and lock the liberals out of power. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, has threatened to step in and pick favorites if it’s forced to—a maneuver that would likely set off a messy round of intra-party finger pointing.

But that’s all surmountable, if you ask Democrats. They’re convinced Orange County will be the place that delivers them control of the House of Representatives in November. “Twenty years ago, I would never have dreamed that possible,” says Bill Press, the mid-1990s California Democratic Party chair who is now a radio host in Washington, D.C. “We always saw Orange County as the biggest challenge.”

Press used to host conventions in Orange County simply to maintain some Democratic presence here, hoping to lay groundwork for eventual change. “But we never thought it would turn this far,” he says.

When Republicans act like Trump isn’t the reason Mitt Romney’s 6-point victory in Orange County in 2012 turned into a 5-point win for Clinton in 2016—or when they insist they can keep Trump out of their 2018 races—they’re being purposely obtuse, California Democrats believe. “The idea that somehow it’s not a referendum on the administration? It’s like, that’s just not true,” says Tom Steyer, the San Francisco Democratic billionaire who’s spent at least $20 million running nationwide television ads calling for Trump’s impeachment. Steyer early this year pledged to spend $30 million more to help win the House, specifically targeting California’s seats. “We’re not making up that people hate this administration,” he says. “People are really scared. They dislike it. They are desperate to have their votes count against it.”

Andy Thorburn, campaigning to replace Royce, has run a digital ad calling for Trump’s impeachment. Rouda—a former Republican who gave money to John Kasich in 2016—has raised money online using a similar pitch. And at the end of January, Sara Jacobs started running the first TV spot of her campaign to replace Issa. The 30-second video opens with a recorded news program announcing Issa’s retirement, and follows with a voiceover as a large “X” lands atop an image of the nine-term congressman. “He’s out,” the ad intones. “But he’s still there,” it continues, as a clip of Trump begins. “And if we want to hold him accountable, we need to win back Congress,” the speaker says. The screen pans to reveal a scene from last year’s Women’s March in Washington.

Royce’s and Issa’s districts were among the first anywhere to get paid organizers on the ground in early 2017, courtesy of House Democrats’ campaign operation, as the DCCC also moved its Western political office from D.C. to Irvine. By mid-2017, Democratic House members were flying into Orange County to campaign against their Republican colleagues. Voters began holding mock town halls with empty seats on stage to protest the members’ unwillingness to appear. The demonstrations’ frequency and intensity increased when all four Orange County Republicans voted for the failed plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Neither Issa’s nor Rohrabacher’s votes against December's tax bill paused the drumbeat.

“I’ve never seen such political activism that’s going on,” Alan Lowenthal, one of the two Democratic House members whose districts overlap with Orange County, told me. Lowenthal helped organize a forum for candidates in Rohrabacher’s district that drew a crowd of more than 500 voters on a Saturday morning nearly a year out from Election Day.

Around the time the DCCC touched down here in early February of last year, Marian Bodnar, a Cal State Long Beach music professor and a political novice, held the first meeting of her local Indivisible group. She expected 10 people to come to the Fullerton Community Center for a meeting of the area’s podcast-woke netroots. Ninety voters packed in. A year later the group counts 1,600 Royce constituents as members.

To their south, between 300 and 800 of Issa’s constituents began showing up outside his district office every Tuesday, demanding to speak with him in an escalating protest. In May, Issa appeared at last. After talking with members of the crowd, he disappeared inside, only to re-emerge on the building’s roof. He wanted to take a picture of the scene.


Piling into Marie Callender’s Restaurant and Bakery on a chilly Monday night, down the street from a Vietnamese evangelical church, the women of the Santa Ana chapter of the National Federation of Republican Women got to chatting about the president—“Mr. Trump”—before the evening’s programming began. Trump’s name didn’t come up during the official session, a Q&A with Santa Ana’s interim police chief that largely focused on the city’s homelessness problem, followed by announcements that included logistical planning for National School Choice Week. But, bantering among themselves around a long wooden table amid brick walls and cloth-cushioned booths, the women—white and Hispanic and in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s—offered unprompted theories about why Trump lost Orange County 14 months earlier.

Swapping tales of once-skeptical family members who are now full-blown Trumpistas, they quickly reached the consensus that Trump was just too moderate then. One, behind large glasses, pointed me to a list of Trump accomplishments on the far-right website WorldNetDaily. A car with a “Remember BENGHAZI” bumper sticker sat in the parking lot, visible through the window behind me. Another of the women handed me her business card, which was festooned with American flags. Across from her contact information, it declared, in italics, Make America Great Again. And a third woman insisted a serious backlash is coming against the liberal nonsense about an impending Democratic electoral wave, fueled by women like her who are fed up with the news media calling them dumb for supporting Trump.

Back on the peaceful Mission Viejo street, the Republican canvassers are talking with an exasperated Wendy Bucknum. It’s five days after the anniversary of the Women’s March, which this year drew 20,000 protesters in Santa Ana. One of Bucknum’s friends attended the demonstration. She saw, Bucknum says, the marchers’ enthusiasm for turning their anti-Trump fervor into an anti-Walters wave. Bucknum—who, I’ll later learn, is a member of the Mission Viejo city council—looks pained, and gestures to her new door-hanger, featuring Walters’ face. “From a woman’s standpoint,” she asks, baffled, “why would we go after a woman?”

The answer sits in the Oval Office.

The canvassers have a third question for each voter they meet, after they’ve gauged the household’s level of support for Walters. “Do you support Donald Trump?” they ask, tentatively. The answer is usually curt, a quick yes, and the pair typically then smiles and hands the voter a door-hanger.

“Yes,” Bucknum said, looking pained. “Yes, you know. And there’s a lot of people that will probably not say that. We live in California, so there are a lot of people who don’t talk about how they really feel, because they’re afraid of retribution, retaliation.”

Less certain is whether enough of her neighbors agree. And whether Orange County has changed too much since September 2, 1984.

On that day, approaching the end of his first term in Washington, President Reagan climbed down from Air Force One at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro and stepped into the doorway of his limo. He grabbed a microphone to address the Marine families gathered to greet him just before his first re-election campaign event.

“Everyone was smiling on the plane when we headed west,” he told the crowd. Approaching the service members, Reagan uttered a one-liner he’d been rehearsing at private fundraisers for years. The joke reads a bit differently now.

“It’s nice to be in Orange County,” Reagan said, “where the good Republicans go to die.”


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