Newer, bluer Orange County welcomes Biden – Orange County Register

2022-10-22 20:26:15 By : Ms. Amy Yang

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Ronald Reagan once quipped that Orange County is where all good Republicans go to die. We gave the world Richard Nixon, the unabashed Red-Baiter who became the first president to resign and was reborn a noble elder statesman. We gave the world B-1 Bob Dornan, the firebrand who outed a fellow U.S. Representative as gay on the House floor.

No GOP hopeful could survive without the backing (and money) of Orange County’s powerful Republican machinery.

That was the O.C. I landed in nearly 30 years ago, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by dizzying margins and Laguna Beach a lone outpost for the other team. But here we are, now, in rather beige Irvine with a surprisingly colorful President Joe Biden, who’s talking about lowering drug prices and helping American families and, riffing off the “Free Iran” T-shirts in the crowd, channeling righteous outrage over how  women’s rights are trampled around the globe.

I’m wondering…why? Why did Uncle Joe venture behind the Orange Curtain for this bit of political theater?

But like every shot in a well-made movie, it means something. It’s saying, Everything’s different now. This ain’t your grandpa’s — or the Republican Party’s — Orange County anymore.

“I see us making profound change every election cycle that we have,” said an excited Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, hours before Biden took the stage at Irvine Valley College on Friday, Oct. 14. “We’re more than 80,000 voter registrations in the lead. We took all seven congressional races in 2018, and in 2020, we flipped more than 20 seats to Democrats on the local level. We’re close to taking the majority on the Board of Supervisors. We’re shaking it.”

Back in the 1990s, when I got here, O.C. voter registration was a crushing 56% Republican to 34% Democrat, with independents leaning Republican.

Today, O.C. voter registration is 38% Democrat to 33% Republican, with independents leaning Democratic.

“This shift is not going to go away,” said former county supervisor William Steiner, a self-described political junkie from the moderate wing of the Grand Old Party. “O.C. is no longer a graveyard for Democratic candidates, but it’s still an ATM for Republican candidates.”

Back in the 1990s, when I got here, O.C. was 65% White, 23% Hispanic, 10% Asian and 2% Black, according to U.S. Census.

Today, O.C. is 38% White, 34% Hispanic, 22% Asian and, still, 2% Black.

“There’s this new reality because of changing demographics that I believe is here to stay,” Steiner said. “And despite the best intentions of the O.C. Republican Party, we’re not going to return to the ‘good old days.’”

I mean, O.C. hasn’t exactly been the Bermuda Triangle for Democrats. President Barack Obama gave the commencement address at UC Irvine in 2014 (“Hello Anteaters… that’s something I thought I’d never say”). Hillary Clinton, who turned O.C. blue for the first time since 1936, held ocean-view fundraisers in Laguna Beach. Her husband, President Bill, was treated at UCI Medical Center just last year.

Longtime swim-against-the-current Democrat Larry Agran offered a more practical read on Biden’s appearance than mine — “He’s no doubt here to help Democratic candidates for Congress … and perhaps others,” he said — and, yes, there was Rep. Katie Porter introducing Biden, and there was Biden singing Porter’s praises for helping champion the infrastructure bill.

But things are just different now. “We’re seeing it,” Briceño said. “We hold four out of five state Senate seats, we hold a nice chunk of the Assembly seats, and, in fact, we’re taking over in red cities like Huntington Beach, where we have a majority of Dems on the city council. You saw us take seats in San Clemente.

“We see state reps visit us much more often, but also the president. It’s a sign. It will activate us to make sure we’re moving voters to turn in their ballots.”

So, while Reagan suggested Orange County is where good Republicans come to die, others quip that it’s the party that’s dying. Observers say it needs better discipline, perhaps ensuring that one strong candidate runs in local elections, rather than two or three or four who split the vote. It also needs to do better at registering new voters.

But Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller, borrowing from Mark Twain, cautioned that the reports of the GOP’s death in Orange County are greatly exaggerated.

“First, we are Purple County, not Red or Blue, which means the parties have to compete for O.C. voters’ support,” Smoller said. “Second, over-the-top gas prices, inflation and a faltering economy undermine support for Biden and Dems at all levels. On a daily basis, far more people purchase gas than are directly touched by the Supreme Court’s abortion decision. Also, for many, Donald Trump — and the very real threat he poses to democracy — is ‘yesterday’s news.’”

Indeed. The streets around the college were patrolled by knots of men wrapped in Trump flags, some carrying signs with messages filled with or suggesting profanity for Biden. Stay classy, O.C.

“Californians are struggling thanks to Joe Biden, Katie Porter and California Democrats’ reckless and radical policies,” said a statement from California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan that arrived during Biden’s event. “Voters know who’s responsible for the strain on their wallets today, and no amount of Southern California photo ops, fundraisers, chicken quesadillas or victory laps will save Democrats at the ballot box this November.”

Smoller continued: “This has long been a Republican bastion. In 2016, Democrats became the majority of registered voters and they have continued to climb, but the numbers are still within 5% of each other and the Republican Party still has a lot of adherence. A big chunk of the County Board of Supervisors is Republican. While Democrats took all the congressional seats in 2018, a couple of Republicans won seats back. And at the local level — school boards, city councils — the Republican Party is very much alive.”

The point, though, is that Orange County is competitive. Up for grabs. Ready to be convinced. We’re not reliably blue, like Los Angeles County, or reliably red, like Riverside County. We’ve just gotten so much more interesting.

We’ve never voted for Trump. In 2020, 54% of voters chose Biden, while 44% chose Trump. In 2016, 51% chose Hillary Clinton, while 42% chose Trump.

Democrats have been picking up about 500 more new voters each week than the GOP in Orange County ever since Trump won in 2016. The tide was turning for years, but Trump seems to have cemented a demographic-driven shift into a real, true political shift.

Briceño, chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, is eager to cement that further this “Roe-vember.”

Biden wasn’t her first choice among the presidential candidates, “but President Biden has taken my soul,” she said. “I’ve been a labor leader for 32 years and I’ve never heard a president speak about labor, about the working class, the way President Biden does. I’m swept up by him. Taking on the pharmaceutical industry, student loan forgiveness, the environment, jobs — those are tough things to do, and in this political climate, amazing. This is the kind of energy we need to see from our president.”

Back in 1988, then-GOP chair Tom Fuentes boasted that “Orange County remains the most Republican county in America.” Today, the most Republican county in America is Roberts County, Texas, population 827. There, 96% of the vote went to Trump in 2020.

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