IRVINE, Calif. — Nowhere, with the exception of the White House, was the news of Republican Karen Handel’s special election victory more welcome than in Orange County, California.
With four local GOP-held congressional districts considered in play in 2018, it’s arguably the epicenter of the Democratic Party’s effort to win a House majority. But Republicans are glad to point out how similar the local political landscape looks to Georgia’s affluent, suburban 6th District.
Tuesday’s outcome laid bare the difficulty Democrats face even in a suburban California county where Donald Trump isn’t especially popular — Orange County voted for Hillary Clinton last year, backing a Democrat for the first time since 1936. Republicans still outnumber Democrats in each of the contested suburban districts, and some local political winds appear to be blowing in the GOP’s favor.
“The Democrats think they’re going to pop something here,” said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. “We’re not going to let them.”
Orange County for decades stood as a bastion of conservatism, a densely populated swath of suburbia that local Republicans proudly called “America’s most Republican county.” At a GOP dinner in Irvine over the weekend, Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt told Orange County Republicans, “You guys are an oasis of liberty in an occupied state.”
Demographic changes, including the party’s failure to adapt to the county’s growing number of Latino voters — a far more significant factor than in Georgia — have weakened Republicans’ grip.
The GOP now represents about 38 percent of the Orange County electorate, down from 42 percent five years ago, and Democrats have been closing the gap.
Yet Republican voter registration still outpaces Democratic registration in each of the four congressional districts. And with the exception of the presidential election, Republicans largely fared well in Orange County last year. Only Rep. Darrell Issa, whose district straddles Orange and San Diego counties, came close to being unseated. The others — GOP Reps. Mimi Walters, Ed Royce and Dana Rohrabacher — won by much wider margins.
“You’re talking about voters who went to the ballot box, voted for these members of Congress … in the year that Hillary was actually on the ballot,” said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party executive director who cast his ballot for Walters but wrote in famed broadcaster Vin Scully for president last year. “So why would these people, two years later, not vote for the incumbent they voted for [in 2016]?”
He added, “The people’s objections to Trump aren’t political, they’re personal … Mimi Walters hasn’t been insulting to women. Mimi Walters isn’t a jerk.”
Mark Petracca, a political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, said that based on registration statistics alone, “I actually don’t think the Democrats running for Congress have as good a chance as everybody thinks they do … They’re closer than they were 20 years ago. But they’re still not there yet.”
Nevertheless, Democrats following the 2016 election were buoyed by Clinton’s historic victory here, just as they saw a similar opportunity in the Republican-oriented Georgia 6th District where she only narrowly lost to Trump. And after Democrat Jon Ossoff fell to Handel on Tuesday, they sought solace in the closeness of his defeat.
"We showed the world that in places where no one thought it was possible you could fight, we could fight," Ossoff said in his concession speech. "This is not the outcome any of us were hoping for. But this is the beginning of something much bigger than us."
Preparing for the midterm elections in California, Democrats have improved their standing in Orange County with a stronger field of candidates than in previous election cycles. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee moved its Western regional political office from Washington, D.C., to Irvine, and liberal activists began airing advertisements criticizing Republican incumbents for their vote to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Former Democratic Rep. Ellen Tauscher is opening a super PAC designed to help win seven competitive congressional seats, including the four in Orange County.
Local Republicans and the National Republican Congressional Committee are bracing for a Democratic onslaught. The local GOP plans to expand an online voter-registration program it tested in Walters’ district last cycle and will open headquarters in each congressional district, spending $1.6 million, Whitaker said.
“I carried Orange County by 17,000 votes, but because of places like the University of California in San Diego, I needed every one of those,” Issa told Orange County Republicans at the weekend dinner. “If not for Orange County, I might be standing here, but it wouldn’t be as a congressman.”
While California Republicans cheered the Georgia result on Tuesday, they also appear poised to weaponize a state-level issue in the 2018 campaign. Following the passage of an unpopular gas tax increase, GOP strategists are discussing placing a referendum on the November 2018 ballot in part to increase GOP turnout in the congressional races. Republicans also orchestrated a recall campaign against an Orange County state senator who supported the measure. The effort went forward with such fervor that Democratic lawmakers last week took the extraordinary step of changing state election rules, passing legislation that is likely to delay the recall.
There is precedent for Democratic concerns about Republicans’ ability to capitalize on tax issues, most prominently in the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. Though the gas tax is a state matter — not a federal one — Republicans are calculating that it could boost turnout and focus public debate more broadly on taxes.
“I think the building of legislative races and congressional races in that area is going to be around this tax issue,” said Tom Ross, political director for New Majority California, an influential group of Republican donors in Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego. “I think that plays well everywhere.”
Democratic strategist Maclen Zilber, who is advising one of Rohrabacher’s challengers, Harley Rouda, was skeptical of the GOP’s ability to leverage the gas tax issue to influence congressional contests, or even to increase turnout.
“I think the kind of people who are angry about the gas tax are the type of people who are going to turn out in ‘18 regardless of whether there’s a gas tax on the ballot,” he said.
Zilber added that in congressional races, voters will focus on “any number of things people are talking about in Trump-land, from the AHCA to the travel ban.”
Yet that wasn’t the case in Georgia — and it is not clear in California — that tying a Republican to Trump will be enough to unseat him or her.
Speaking to GOP donors over the weekend, neither Rohrabacher nor Issa sought to distance themselves from the president. Issa touted his role in the House’s passage of an Obamacare repeal bill. And in a nod to leaked audio of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying, supposedly in jest, that he suspected Russian President Vladimir Putin was paying then-candidate Trump and Rohrabacher, Rohrabacher said he will serve Moscow mules at a fundraiser McCarthy is attending in July on his behalf.
Tom Tucker, a founder of New Majority, said of Republican donors surveying the upcoming congressional contests, “Obviously, they’re concerned. But nobody’s pushing the panic button.”
The Orange County races, he said, will be “contested, no question. But it’s not too easy to dislodge an incumbent, and the four that we have I think are in pretty good stead.”