It’s not the first time that the headlines are all wrong. “Orange County goes blue, as Democrats complete historic sweep of is seven congressional seats,” the Los Angeles Times trumpeted on Nov. 17. The same day, Politico reported that “Cisneros defeats Kim in Southern California, turning Orange County blue.” The next day, Huffpost ran with “Orange County, A Conservative Bastion, Turns Blue For The First Time In Decades.”
No folks, Orange County didn’t turn blue–the Times especially should know that.
“It’s not turning blue,” Chapman Political Science Professor Fred Smoller told me. “It’s turning purple.”
In other words, control over the county is largely divided. Yes, Democrats now hold all seven congressional seats that cover the county. It’s a huge achievement–but it’s not a signal that the whole county has gone Democratic. In fact, you don’t have to look very far to see that even after the 2018 election, Orange County Republicans remain heavily entrenched.
“Republicans are not out of it,” Smoller said. “They control most city councils, and most school boards.”
Republicans also control the entire Orange County Board of Supervisors, though that seems to be changing. Democrat Doug Chaffee currently holds a tiny 572-vote lead over Republican Tim Shaw, and there will be a special election in early 2019 for the 3rd District seat (Supervisor Todd Spitzer just got himself elected District Attorney).
Local seats on school boards and city councils are important to a party because they act as farm teams for more powerful offices, ensuring longterm political control. There are many, many elected Republicans throughout Orange County, and that ensures the party will continue to hold power for some time to come.
Even after the election, Republicans control four of the county’s seven Assembly seats and three of the five state Senate seats, though Democrat Tom Umberg’s lead over incumbent Republican Janet Nguyen in the 34th is razor thin at the moment (in fact, the lead is so close that Umberg sent out an email to supporters on Nov. 20 cheering his “50.1%-49.9%” lead).
Despite the heavy push by Democrats throughout the OC Congressional races, it looks as though Republicans like State Senator–and Senate Minority Leader–Pat Bates (36th District) and Assembly Members Phillip Chen (55th District), Steven Choi (68th District), Tyler Diep (72nd District) and William Brough (73rd District) will all retain their seats.
These are some pretty safe spaces for Republicans. GOP registration advantages in these districts range from five points (the 55th and 72nd Districts) to 19 points (the 73rd District). The 73rd, which spans South County and is about 70 percent white, is a veritable Republican fortress.
But this isn’t to say that Democrats didn’t make some progress at the state level. In addition to the possibility that Umberg will unseat Nguyen (which shouldn’t be surprising, given that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the district), Democrat Cottie Petrie-Norris is maintaining a comfortable lead over incumbent Republican Matthew Harper in the 74th Assembly District. That’s a substantial victory, given that the 74th covers central coastal Orange County, where Republicans hold an eight-point registration advantage over Democrats.
“I’ve been here 35 years, and the Republicans have gone from 20 percent advantage in registrations in 1990 to one percent today,” Smoller said. “In the Congressional races, the accelerant was Trump. He sped things along. But the numbers are not looking good for Republicans. Latinos and Asians are half the electorate, and they trend Democratic.”
That’s in the long term. Right now, the county remains very much a mix of red and blue power centers. It is indeed “purple,” as Smoller said, and will likely remain that way for some time.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.