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5 Ways Democrats Pulled Down The Orange Curtain

Harley Rouda supporters celebrate as his lead grows at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Spa in Newport Beach on Nov. 6, 2018. (Annie Lesser for LAist)
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The Orange Curtain. Where All Good Republicans Go to Die. Reagan Country. Blah, blah, blah.

What you thought you knew about Los Angeles' famously conservative neighbor, it's just not true anymore. In an astonishing show of force, Democrats swept all seven congressional seats representing Orange County residents, flipping four of them after long-time Republican control.

They also picked up a state Senate seat (although incumbent Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, has requested a recount), a state Assembly seat and a spot on the locally powerful OC Board of Supervisors.

Costa Mesa and Aliso Viejo have newly majority-Democratic city councils, although these elections are officially nonpartisan. Even Democratic Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom won in OC over Republican candidate John Cox -- albeit by a slim 3,000 votes.

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Many races were close, and some victors weren't known until weeks after the Nov. 6 election. But the results are now crystal clear: the blue wave was wide and deep.

And likely lasting. Democrats have shrunk the political party registration gap here to a sliver: Orange County now counts just 17,228 more registered Republicans than Democrats, according to the county Registrar of Voters, while voters who decline to state a party preference make up an increasingly close third.

How'd it happen? In a word, Trump.

"Everything is a side effect of Donald Trump," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. "Trump accelerated things that were already underway in Orange County."

Demographic changes, increasing urbanization, and a stealthily growing Democratic base were all nudging the county left well before President Trump took office.

Political analysts say Trump then further repelled Californians with his often degrading remarks about immigrants, dismissal of environmental concerns and attacks on middle- and upper-class homeowners' pocketbooks with the 2018 tax reforms.

"The old coalition that was being held together and giving Republicans a nominal hold in the state has really kind of collapsed," Republican strategist Mike Madrid said. Why? Again, Trump.


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There are other reasons why Democrats won so big this year in Orange County. They hint at how tentative or not a toehold the party may have as it looks to 2020 and beyond to secure its wins.

Based on election data and more than a dozen interviews with political observers, Republican and Democratic party leaders and grassroots activists, here are the top five factors in the blue wave.

5. Democrats ran a long campaign. While Republican incumbents Mimi Walters (45th Congressional District) and Dana Rohrabacher (48th Congressional District) lowered their guard in the wake of comfortable victories in their 2016 races, Democrats immediately seized on Hillary Clinton's win over Donald Trump in Orange County, ramping up early for the 2018 congressional challenges.

Shortly before Trump was sworn in, long-time Democratic fundraiser Lita Robinow called what she thought would be a small meeting at her Irvine home to discuss strategy. To her surprise, around 90 people showed up. "This thing was filled to the gills," she said, gesturing toward her small living room. "And they didn't go away. They came on the first meeting and they came at the last meeting."

Her group, DemOC PAC, joined with the local chapter of Indivisible, the post-Trump activist group, and immediately began organizing and registering Democratic voters. "We just registered like mad," Robinow said.

Nearly 70,000 new Democrats signed up to vote in OC between January 2016 and November 2018. Meanwhile, the ranks of registered Republican voters fell by close to 30,900 during that time period, according to data from the county registrar.

More than 94,000 voters were newly registered with no party preference.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened an office in Orange County in early 2017. It didn't take long for candidates to step up to take on GOP congressional members. By July 2017, 22 Democratic candidates had filed to run for Orange County's four Republican-held seats.

In January 2018, two of the embattled incumbents, Ed Royce (39th Congressional District) and Darrell Issa (49th Congressional District), opted not to run for re-election rather than face tough campaigns. New Republican candidates then had to play catch up to Democratic challengers, some of whom had already been campaigning for a full year.

4. Democrats came out of the woodwork. And they were fired up. Robinow, the Democratic fundraiser, remembers that when she first moved to Irvine in 1988, people would always assume she was Republican. She would mostly keep quiet.

Now, it's different, she said. She pointed to her jacket slung across a chair pinned with a pink button declaring, "Repeal the patriarchy."

"I went to the movies the other night and the woman who took my money said, 'I love your pin.' Nobody would've said that before," Robinow chuckled. "Nor would I have necessarily put it on my lapel."

Many Democratic activists, like Huntington Beach resident Carey Jo Chase, were borne out of President Trump's victory.

"I'm one of those that had never voted, until Obama came in, and then even when Obama came in, I still didn't really pay a whole lot of attention," Chase said. "So I am at fault for Trump being in office."

Shortly after the 2016 election, she joined an Indivisible group followed by other, grassroots organizations. Members of those organizations became ground troops for Democratic candidates.

At least 10 of Orange County's 27 Democratic Clubs were founded after the 2016 election, along with nearly three dozen new grassroots groups, according to the party.

Democrats often used technology to connect would-be volunteers with campaigns. Through one digital platform, MobilizeAmerica, volunteers signed up for more than 28,000 campaign shifts -- canvassing and phone banking -- in the four targeted congressional districts.

In all, volunteers and paid canvassers in the four districts made 2.1 million phone calls and knocked on doors 1.6 million times on behalf of Democratic congressional candidates.

Even Republican National Committeeman Shawn Steel was impressed with the number and dedication of the Democrats' campaigners.

"They had this amazing ground army that would knock on the same door five times to get the low-pro voter out of bed," he said. By "low-pro" Steel means low propensity, or someone who rarely votes.

Steel thinks most Democratic canvassers were paid. Certainly some were (so were Republican canvassers, Steel said). OC Democratic Party leader Fran Sdao said paid canvassers were an important factor in Democratic wins. She said canvassers were paid $15 to $20 an hour and worked every day in each of the four targeted congressional races. "Those are decent jobs," she said.

3. Technology and money, in sums both big and small. Democrats raised a ton of it, in big and small sums. All four Orange County races made the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics' list of the top 10 most expensive congressional races in this election cycle. The sums include contributions to candidates and spending by outside groups.

The national Democratic Party's focus on these races brought in big donations from the likes of billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. Through his Independence USA PAC, Bloomberg spent at least $9.2 million on the Orange County races in the three weeks leading up to the election, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.

Congressman-elect and lottery winner Gil Cisneros had a leg up, thanks to an $8.8 million loan he gave himself from his 2010 MEGA Millions winnings.

But Democrats also made smart use of the online fundraising tool ActBlue to amass millions in small-dollar donations from people across the country.

ActBlue has been used by candidates to collect online donations for more than a decade. "But it got put on steroids this election cycle," said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc.

Using ActBlue's tandem fundraising platform, Democratically aligned groups like Swing Left and Crooked Media gave donors the option of spreading a single donation among various candidates, including those running in races across the country.

"It essentially allowed individual grassroots fundraising to be magnified by organizations that would come out and say, 'We know you want to take over Congress. We've picked 10 candidates that will help us get there,'" Mitchell said. "And you've got a website you can go to and donate to candidates you've never heard of."

In all, 74 groups sent money to the Democratic candidates in Districts 39, 45, 48 and 49 through tandem fundraising, according to ActBlue spokesperson Caleb Cade.

OC Democratic challengers Harley Rouda (48th Congressional District), Katie Porter (45th Congressional District) and Mike Levin (49th Congressional District) all received more than 75 percent of their individual contributions through ActBlue, based on data from The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative news organization. These candidates and Gil Cisneros (39th Congressional District) raised a collective $13.9 million through ActBlue, according to Cade.

2. Massive voter turnout. Turnout in November was a whopping 71 percent in Orange County, the highest in a midterm election in OC since 1970. The turnout upended the historically low participation among Democrats in midterm elections, when stalwart Republican voters can exercise outsized influence.

New voting laws helped turn out Democratic and independent voters. The ability to hand in ballots for others who are not immediate family members, register on Election Day and the automatic voter sign-ups at the Department of Motor Vehicles all contributed to the bigger numbers.

Some Republican leaders have decried the 2016 state law that removed most limitations on who can collect and turn in another person's ballot as a recipe for fraud. (It's still illegal to get paid to do so.)

Steel said he thought what he and other Republicans term "ballot harvesting" may have tipped the scales in Democrats' favor. Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said there's no way to track how many ballots were turned in by someone other than the voter, but that anecdotally he had "received reports of large quantities of ballots being dropped off throughout the County."

Some analysts doubt that such votes made much difference in the election outcome. Andrew Godinich, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said ballots collected by Democratic supporters from voters made up less than 1 percent of ballots in the Orange County races.

And it certainly wasn't Democratic voters alone who delivered the victories.

Republican strategist Madrid attributed the Democrats' wins to three factors: an unusually large turnout of "non-traditional" Democratic voters, most of them young and people of color; no party preference voters who largely cast ballots for Democrats; and Republican, college-educated voters who crossed lines and voted for Democrats.

He said Republican women likely made up most of the defectors. "Polling has been telling us that this was going to be a particularly problematic demographic for Republicans to hold," Madrid said.

OC GOP Party chair Fred Whitaker acknowledged this and the party's waning appeal to suburban voters in a November letter to party members. "Whether it was on healthcare or the limitations on mortgage interest and state tax deductions, some of our voters defected," he wrote. "We are doing great in rural America, but the entire party and all of our leaders and candidates need to do a better job at messaging to the suburban voter."

Since 2013, the percentage of Republican voters in OC has shrunk from 41 percent to 34.6 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters declaring no party preference rose from 22.7 percent to 27.6 percent during that same time period.

Democrats now make up 33.5 percent of OC voters, according to the county registrar.

1. Trump appalls many Californians, including in Orange County. Recent polling by the New York Times showed that no more than 45 percent of voters approved of Trump in any of the four OC districts targeted by Democrats. In the 49th District, where Democrat Mike Levin won with 56.4 percent of the vote, Trump's approval rating was the lowest, at 41 percent.

Madrid said the president's pre-election emphasis on curbing illegal immigration and building a border wall, echoed by Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox, hurt Republican candidates in California.

"There was just simply no way that anything other than a full-throated renunciation of the Trump administration, and making that part of your brand and your identity, would've had any impact at the local level," Madrid said.

In an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, Steel said the party's problems went "much deeper than any one person."

"From money to grassroots organization, California Republicans are completely outmatched," Steel wrote.

He also bemoaned changes in demographics, namely an exodus of conservatives from California to states like Texas.

Analysts say the change in OC's ethnic makeup is a major factor in the county's changing politics. Latino and Asian residents combined now make up 53 percent of the population, compared to 44 percent in 2000, according to census data.

Sonenshein from the Pat Brown Institute said Republicans "haven't adapted to the new electorate in California."

But despite Democrats' big wins in Orange County this year, Republicans still hold most local offices and state seats representing the county, which indicates that the party's base remains strong.

Sonenshein said Democrats' ability to make further inroads in OC may depend on how the state government, which is now overwhelmingly run by Democrats, handles its power in the coming years.

"They could do more to revive the Republican Party by screwing up than the Republican Party seems to be able to do on its own," he said.

Meanwhile, OC Democrats are already starting to think about 2020. California's new March primary is just around the corner.


12 p.m.: This article was updated with context about the Democrats' national efforts in the campaigns and a response to the allegation of "ballot harvesting."

Correction: A previous version of this story noted incorrectly that the total amount raised in OC through ActBlue was $14.9 million. LAist regrets the error.

This article was originally published at 7 a.m.

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