Politics

The Battle for the House Hits the Shores of Southern California

Orange County districts are a new midterm battleground

Will a blue wave hit California? Democrat Harley Rouda is one of the candidates hoping to flip a GOP-held seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. — The battle for control of the House has landed in California, and it’s partly because of voters like Deborah and Wyatt Carr.

Deborah, 69, was not registered with a party, and Wyatt, 73, was a longtime Republican. Both voted for Hillary Clinton and for their GOP congresswoman, Mimi Walters, in 2016.

But on a recent Saturday here, the Carrs were sporting bright orange T-shirts to show support for one of Walters’ challengers: Democrat Katie Porter.

The Republican Party has moved away from them on issues such as immigration and gun control, they said, and Walters has not done enough to stand up to President Donald Trump or for their 45th District.

The question for both parties is how many more voters like Deborah and Wyatt exist in the traditionally Republican stronghold of Orange County. Democrats see new opportunities to flip Southern California House seats, but Republicans say it won’t be that easy.

New battleground

California operatives say there has been more focus on House races in Orange County this cycle than at any other time they can remember. For the first time, both parties’ House campaign committees have offices in the county. And they’re in the same city.

Across the highway from John Wayne Airport in Irvine, the National Republican Congressional Committee leased 10,000 square feet of office space. Inside, campaign signs for local GOP members of Congress hang on the walls, and red tablecloths cover the phone bank stations (along with some pocket Constitutions).

Volunteers work the phones in the new National Republican Congressional Committee field office in Irvine. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Volunteers work the phones in the new National Republican Congressional Committee field office in Irvine. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

On an average weekday, between 15 and 20 volunteers hit the phones, focusing on boosting GOP turnout ahead of the June 5 primary. The space is also shared with Walters’ campaign and will host events and serve as a central location for GOP campaigns and NRCC staffers.

“This is a long-term commitment,” NRCC spokesman Jesse Hunt said. “Part of it … is taking roots in Orange County and making sure that this bastion of Republicanism [in Southern California], if you will, knows that we’re committed, knows that Republican campaigns, organizations are committed to maintaining our advantage in this area.”

Those trying to erode that advantage are also based in Irvine, in a WeWork shared office space, just a 15-minute drive up Interstate 405 from the NRCC office.

Staffers with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have been working for a year on the fourth floor. They have eight full-time staffers, including a political director, and have invested in field organizers in seven GOP-held districts in California that Clinton carried.

“In my political life, I’ve never seen four Orange County congressional districts in play, at least targeted by the Democrats like this,” said Matt Cunningham, a GOP strategist in California. He’s working with Republican Scott Baugh, who is challenging Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th District.

While the Democratic energy has led to a glut of congressional hopefuls, it has endangered their chances of making the general election ballot. Under California’s top-two primary system, the two highest vote-getters on Tuesday, regardless of party, will advance to November. Democrats are concerned having a slew of candidates could split the vote, leaving two Republicans to fight it out in the fall.

The DCCC, the state Democratic Party and members of Congress were active in encouraging some candidates to drop out, and are now focused on turning out voters for the primary. They see California as key to taking back the House, given the sheer number of GOP-held districts that backed Clinton.

Democrats on the ground say the area was shifting years before the 2016 election.

“One thing to remember about this district is it’s a very diverse district, a very young district,” said Sam Jammal, a Democrat running for the open 39th District, where GOP incumbent Ed Royce is not seeking re-election. “It didn’t suddenly become very diverse and young as soon as Donald Trump got elected.”

Raising the ‘orange curtain’

Four of the seven GOP-held districts that backed Clinton in California touch Orange County, long considered a Republican stronghold. Clinton sent shockwaves though the area when she carried the county in 2016 — the first Democratic presidential nominee to do so since 1936.

“There was a time when Orange County was behind the orange curtain,” said Andrew Acosta, a California Democratic consultant. “You couldn’t get a Democrat elected down there. … So now there’s a lot more optimism for Democrats to be successful.”

Democrats are heavily targeting two open seats held by retiring Republicans — the 39th and 49th districts. They’re also targeting Walters in the 45th District and Rohrabacher in the 48th.

Ask people in Orange County what has changed, and they’ll point to the demographic shifts and increasing Hispanic and Asian populations.

On a recent Saturday in the 39th District, Democrats gathered in Rowland Heights to encourage voters to turn out in the primary. At a school a few blocks away from the event, a banner about soccer teams displayed three different languages.

The 39th is a majority-minority district that Clinton carried by 9 points, and Royce won by 14 points in 2016. Recognizing that his district was changing, Royce has reached out to its different communities, particularly Asian-Americans, who make up 32 percent of the population.

But with the 13-term congressman retiring, Democrats see the 39th as a top pickup opportunity, as long as a Democrat makes it out of Tuesday’s crowded primary. The other Orange County districts are also increasingly diverse.

Democrats see another reason for optimism about flipping these seats. They say GOP policies in the nation’s capital, such as the tax overhaul and expanding offshore drilling, are negatively affecting the area.

“In 2016, we saw that Democrats can appeal to a diverse electorate,” said DCCC spokesman Drew Godinich, who is based in Irvine. “What we also have working in our favor this cycle is how the Republican agenda in Washington has almost specifically targeted Southern California for punishment.”

Not so fast

Republicans disagree, saying voters will reap the benefits of the new tax law. They also argue Democratic candidates are moving too far to the left in the crowded primaries.

“I feel pretty good about most of our incumbents,” California GOP chairman Jim Brulte said. “The fact of the matter is Democrats … in order to win their primary, are posturing to the left of Elizabeth Warren. And this is not where most California, Southern California, Central California, down-the-line voters are.”

Republicans are also turning out their voters, GOP lawmakers and operatives say.

In all but one of the four Orange County seats targeted by Democrats, Republicans outnumber Democrats in returned ballots, according to numbers from Political Data Inc. The exception was the open 49th District, where Democratic turnout had equaled the GOP side as of Friday evening.

And Republicans believe their voters will turn out to support an initiative undoing an increase in the state’s gas tax that is expected to be on the ballot in November.

Some pushed back on the notion that the districts’ increasing diversity meant they would become more Democratic.

“It’s always talked about as the sleeping giant,” Cunningham said of Hispanic voters. “Part of the issue is [Democrats] have a hard time converting young voters or minority voters into actual voters.”

That is reflected so far in absentee returns, where white voters dominate ballots returned in all four of the targeted seats. Voters between the ages of 65 and 74 also have the highest rate of ballots returned in all four districts. 

Young Kim, a top GOP candidate in the 39th District, agreed the area was becoming more diverse, but said she believed the districts were actually shifting to the middle, with more voters registering as “no party preference” voters. (Republicans have seen a statewide decline in voter registration. Last week, no party preference voters surpassed Republicans in registration.)

Republicans still have to work to appeal to the changing communities, some said.

“For too long Democrats have done a better job of getting out into the community and shaking hands and connecting with the community,” Kim said. “But I think that is changing.”

Royce serves as an example to Republicans looking to adjust to shifting demographics, said Kim, who has the incumbent’s support in the race and was his longtime district staffer.

Kim is known in the community — she served a term in the state Assembly. That sort of familiarity is an advantage other Republican candidates in the area share, said GOP state Sen. John Moorlach, who has been active in Orange County politics for more than two decades. Democratic hopefuls are generally first-time candidates. 

“You got all these Democratic unknowns running against Republican knowns,” Moorlach said. “And I don’t know how you beat somebody with a nobody.”

Some Democrats acknowledge that winning these districts will be a challenge even though Clinton carried them. 

“I think these seats can flip and they should flip, but the candidates matter so, so, so much more,” Jammal said.

“These are educated districts that haven’t elected Democrats in the past, so we actually have to make a case,” he added. “It’s not going to be a situation where, ‘Oh, OK, we hate Donald Trump and we’re going to elect Democrats.’ We actually have to sell it.”

One California Democratic consultant in the state put it a different way: If Democrats bank on increased turnout that might not happen, they could get burned. 

“If you’re waiting for the wave on your surfboard for six hours and the wave never comes, that’s a long day in the sun,” the consultant said.

Ready for the Midterms? Reactions to 3 Campaign Ads From Roll Call’s Editors

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.