Orange County’s purple hue
From left to right: Scott Baugh, Harley Rouda <i>Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images; Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP</i>
Orange County’s purple hue
David Mark January 26, 11:30 PMJanuary 26, 11:30 PM Video Embed
IRVINE, California — Orange County was once so reliably red that then-President Ronald Reagan affectionately said the coastal enclave south of Los Angeles is “where good Republicans go to die.” Decades later, Orange County Republicans want to show the area can still be Reagan country or at least something like it.
Orange County has become a California political battleground. Democratic presidential nominees have won it twice in a row after an 80-year dry spell for the party going back to 1936. And Democrats have a 3-2 edge on the Board of Supervisors, the county’s local governing body. But Republicans still represent significant chunks of the county in Congress and both chambers of the state legislature.
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All of which sets up a battle royale for the House seat being vacated by firebrand Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, a favorite of the populist Left in the mold of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Porter is running for the California Senate seat held for 30 years by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, though the 89-year-old incumbent hasn’t declared her retirement.
That leaves open the 47th Congressional District, which covers the coastal communities of Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, and Seal Beach, plus Porter’s hometown of Irvine a few miles inland. House Democrats need to hold on to it to have almost any chance of winning the majority in 2024 in a chamber where Republicans now hold a narrow 222-213 edge. House Republicans, meanwhile, would love to claw back the district as a sign of the party’s enduring strength in an area it once dominated.
The district’s competitiveness shows how much Orange County has changed politically through the decades. Once home to conservative celebrities like the late John Wayne and later Chuck Norris, Orange County’s shift to the political center reflects California as a whole. California voted for the Republican presidential nominee six straight times from 1968-1988, including twice for favorite sons Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan when each won two White House terms. But California increasingly became a Democratic bastion starting with the 1992 elections, to the point that it morphed into the symbolic “resistance” center against former President Donald Trump during his 2017-21 White House run.
Orange County is a political laggard, as it’s now firmly in the political center, not the left. Still, the changes are due to a considerable shift in the demographics of its residents. Since 2000, the proportion of whites has declined from 51% to about 40% or less of the population, depending on the survey. Latinos now make up at least 35%, and Asian Americans constitute about 22% of the population. Many Latino and Asian American likely voters are registered Democrats today, though there are plenty of exceptions.
Voters in the 47th District would in 2020 have voted, under its new lines, for President Joe Biden over Trump, 54.5% to 43.4%.
That margin can be deceiving though, as the House district contains plenty of Reagan-style Republicans, not to mention a good chunk of Trumpists. And Porter herself won reelection there in 2022 relatively narrowly, beating Republican rival Scott Baugh 51.6% to 48.4%.
Baugh is running again in 2024. He’s a well-known figure in regional GOP politics. Baugh was a state assemblyman from 1995-2000 and minority leader for the last year and a half or so of his tenure. He went on to lead the Republican Party of Orange County, an influential local GOP organization. Baugh, 60, came of age politically in the Reagan era and ran last year as a down-the-line traditional conservative on social and fiscal issues.
Under California’s “top two” election system, Baugh is likely to make the November ballot against a Democratic rival due to the split-partisan nature of the 47th District. One Democratic candidate is state Sen. Dave Min, a former law professor at the University of California, Irvine, where he was a faculty colleague of Porter before she won a different Orange County-based House seat in 2018. Porter and Min ran against each other that year but have since become political allies, and she has endorsed him for Congress in 2024.
But there’s another prominent Democratic candidate in the race, former Rep. Harley Rouda. The real estate executive won a coastal Orange County House district in the 2018 Democratic wave, defeating a 30-year incumbent. But Rouda’s political fortunes went south two years later when House Republicans unexpectedly picked up House seats, even while Trump lost the White House to Biden.
Rouda lost to Republican Rep. Michelle Steel, sending him packing from Washington after a single two-year term. Steel though left the area in 2020 to run, successfully, for a new inland Orange County district.
Now the open 47th District race is likely to feature Baugh against Democrat Min or Rouda. Both have been careful to calibrate their rhetoric to appeal to independent voters and even some Republicans. And Rouda, with extensive and lucrative business experience, is harder for Republicans to tag as a socialist.
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Whatever the candidate lineup in November 2024, it’s a long way from Republicans’ salad days in Orange County. In 1984, Orange was Reagan’s best California county in his 49-state reelection romp — he earned nearly 75% of the vote there. In 2020, Biden prevailed over Trump in Orange County 53.49% to 44.44% — while crushing the Republican presidential incumbent statewide by a nearly 2-1 margin.
Still, California Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, in his easy 2022 reelection win, lost Orange County to his underfunded Republican rival. It’s all a sign that despite Reagan’s admonition about Republican voters spending their golden years in Orange County, their votes are still very much needed for Republicans to win. The same can be said of Democrats in the now full-on swing region.
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