Politics

Democrats Complete Sweep of Orange County, Once a GOP Haven

Nearly two weeks after Election Day, Democrats won their fourth Republican-held seat there

Democrat Gil Cisneros’ race in the 39th District was the last Orange County race to be called. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With Democrat Gil Cisneros’ victory in California’s 39th District, Democrats have defeated all four Republicans in Orange County, an area former President Ronald Reagan once referred to as the place “where the good Republicans go before they die.”

Cisneros, a Navy veteran and lottery winner, defeated former GOP state Assemblywoman Young Kim in the increasingly diverse 39th District. He had garnered 50.8 percent of the vote compared to Kim’s 49.2 percent when the Associated Press called the race nearly two weeks after Election Day. He won by roughly 3,500 votes.

Cisneros’ victory means that all four Republican-held House seats that touch Orange County have flipped to Democrats. Hillary Clinton won all four districts in 2016 — the first time since 1936 that a Democratic presidential nominee won Orange County.

Republicans explained her victory as a rejection of Trump, and said their candidates were still in strong positions, particularly when running against more liberal opponents. Democrats instead saw a fundamental shift behind the “orange curtain” of the Republican stronghold.

Democratic victories were bolstered by GOP retirements, an active ground game established early on in the cycle, and an effort to head off a potential primary disaster. DCCC spokesman Drew Godinich wrote in a Thursday memo that the party was on track for the most House gains in California since 1962.

Democratic hopes were boosted when GOP Rep. Ed Royce announced he would not run again in the 39th District. The shifting demographics, including increasing Hispanic and Asian populations, made the open seat a top target for Democrats. GOP Rep. Darrell Issa also decided not to run for re-election in the 49th District after barely hanging on in 2016. 

Both parties were active in Orange County — setting up offices and sending staff to the area for the first time.

“Our success in California was no accident,” Godinich wrote. “Instead of heeding our detractors and skeptics, the DCCC stuck to our game plan in California.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a team of several full-time staffers and a political director to the West Coast in April of 2017, who set up on the fourth floor of a WeWork in the Orange County City of Irvine.

The city is situated in the 45th District, where Democrat Katie Porter, a law professor at UC Irvine, recently defeated two-term GOP Rep. Mimi Walters by 2 points.

One year later, the National Republican Congressional Committee leased 10,000 square feet of office space to set up a West Coast field office, also in Irvine (about a 15 minute drive from the DCCC’s team).

Democrats avoided a nightmare scenario in the June primary, with candidates and outside groups spending millions to ensure a Democratic candidate would advance to the general election. In California, the top two vote-getters advance to the November election regardless of party, so there was concern that multiple Democrats would split the Democratic vote, advancing two Republicans.

Democrats avoided general election shutouts, and the four Democratic candidates who went on to compete in Orange County won their races.

Those included Cisneros and Porter, as well as environmental attorney Mike Levin, who won the open 49th District race by 10 points. And in the 48th District, Democratic real estate executive Harley Rouda defeated longtime GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher by 5 points.

California GOP consultant Matt Cunningham, who lives in Orange County, said Republicans should have a good shot at taking back the 48th and 45th Districts, which lean more Republican. He noted the 39th District was also very competitive.

Cunningham worked for former Orange County GOP Chairman Scott Baugh, who unsuccessfully ran in the 48th District primary, and said Baugh is considering running again. The key, said Cunningham, is boosting grassroots organizing and fundraising to counter Democratic activity.

“There’s no reason we can’t come back but there are districts we can’t take granted anymore,” Cunningham said. “Republicans used to be able to do that in Orange County. You can’t do that anymore.”

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