Is OC Really Turning Blue? Today's Special Election May Take Pulse For 2020

A map shows Orange County's Third District (OC.gov)

Voters in Irvine, Tustin and elsewhere in Orange County's Third District head to the polls Tuesday in what could be a litmus test for a county that has seen a massive political shift in recent years. Voters will elect a representative to fill a spot on the five-member Board of Supervisors that was left vacant when former 3rd District representative Todd Spitzer, a Republican, was elected District Attorney in November.

The election is technically non-partisan, but observers say it could measure the staying power of the so-called "blue wave." That wave sent the county's first-ever all-Democratic Congressional delegation to Washington this year.

Here's what you need to know about the latest election:

WHAT CITIES ARE INCLUDED IN OC'S THIRD DISTRICT?

The district covers a big swath of central and eastern Orange County, including the cities of Irvine, Orange, Tustin and Yorba Linda. It also includes most of the foothills, including Anaheim Hills, and Silverado and Trabuco canyons, which border the Cleveland National Forest.

WHAT DOES THE OC BOARD OF SUPERVISORS DO?

In a nutshell, it manages a $6.5 billion budget with the intention of maintaining and improving quality of life for the county's 3.2 million residents.

More specifically, it oversees John Wayne Airport and public healthcare services. It allocates funding for county parks and libraries. It also approves developments in unincorporated areas of the county, many of which are located in wildfire territory.

FYI, the OC Sheriff and District Attorney are elected independently.

WHAT ISSUES ARE AT STAKE IN THIS ELECTION?

The biggest issue on many voters' minds is homelessness. The county and several OC cities were sued last year over the lack of emergency shelters. The suit came after the county moved to clear out the massive homeless encampment that had grown up along the Santa Ana River flood control channel. That lawsuit is ongoing, although some cities have settled with advocates for the homeless in exchange for opening new shelters.

Another major issue is the county's deficient mental health care system. U.S. District Court Judge David Carter, who oversees the homeless lawsuit, accused the county last year of "chipmunking" away funds that could have been used to address mental health issues related to homelessness.

Since then, the Board of Supervisors has allocated tens of millions to address these issues, including $16.6 million in January to start building the county's first, comprehensive mental health campus.

Wildfire response is also a major concern for voters, especially since this part of Orange County has been hit by several, major fires in recent years. In 2017, OC fire authorities were criticized for their slow response to the Canyon Fire 2, which burned more than 9,200 acres and destroyed 25 structures.

WHO'S RUNNING?

Of the seven candidates, three are considered frontrunners:

  • Don Wagner, a Republican and current mayor of Irvine. Previously, he served three terms in the state Assembly. He has been endorsed by the local Republican party.
  • Kristine "Kris" Murray, a Republican and a member of the Anaheim City Council. She is backed by the influential Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, Orange County Business Council and OC Association of Realtors.
  • Loretta Sanchez, the race's sole Democrat and a 20-year veteran of Congress. Sanchez lost to Kamala Harris in the 2016 primary election for U.S. Senate. She's endorsed in the supes' race by the Orange County Employees Association, the United Nurses Association of California and the American Federation of Teachers.

Also on the ballot: Kim-Thy "Katie" Hoang Bayliss, Larry Bales, Katherine Daigle, and Deborah Pauly.

IF THIS IS A NON-PARTISAN ELECTION, WHAT DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH FUTURE ELECTIONS IN 2020?

Orange County was a Republican stronghold until Democrats won big at the congressional level in 2018. Voters also elected the first Democrat in 12 years, Doug Chaffee, to the county Board of Supervisors. But the party still holds most local offices, like city council and school board seats.

This special election for the Board of Supes seat could give an indication of whether Republicans are really losing their grip on local politics.

The party's voter registration margin has been narrowing in recent years. Currently, there are just 11,000 more registered Republicans countywide than Democrats — making up 34 percent of those registered compared to 33.4 percent Democrats (another 28.4 percent registered as independents, or "no party preference"). In the Third District that's at play, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a wider margin — 3.5 percentage points.

Historically, Republicans have turned out to vote in greater numbers for these types of smaller, special elections. But even if more Republicans do vote, some worry that the six Republicans on the ballot will split those votes, giving Democrat Loretta Sanchez an advantage.

To sum it up, party leaders, voters and political observers see this election as a kind of test, or perhaps a preview, of what we could expect in 2020. Will Orange County become an even deeper blue or is it likely to remain purple?

WILL THERE BE A RUNOFF?

No. Whichever candidate gets the most votes on Tuesday wins the seat. There is no runoff election per the county's charter.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the size of Orange County's budget. LAist regrets the error.