Orange Crush: Inside the GOP Struggle to Hold the Southern California Suburbs
MISSION VIEJO, Calif.—In a hilly, tucked-away neighborhood in this city, full of dogwalkers and SUVs and neatly trimmed front lawns, American flags flap outside the front doors, and nary a fence—white picket or otherwise—can be seen. Not long ago, a pair of canvassers for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC tied to Paul Ryan that is dedicated to keeping the House of Representatives in Republican hands, visited the homes of everyone here who isn’t a registered Democrat. They just wanted to ask the locals if Rep. Mimi Walters, a second-term Republican, has their support, they explained, and to leave behind a sunny-looking door-hanger that touts her record. It probably seemed innocuous. But the canvassers were a symbol of radical, unpredictable turmoil. They were messengers of a quiet apocalypse they’re hoping to stop.
All is not well for the Republicans of Orange County. If it were, the door knockers wouldn’t be knocking on these particular doors, or many others across California’s third most populous county. The long-term demographic shifts that have basically doomed the Republican Party throughout the rest of the state may finally have reached the GOP’s prized California hideaway. And in Washington, the Republican Party is led by a man whose crass style of politics clashes with the sensibilities of the chinos-and-mimosas conservatives and sandals-and-surfboards libertarians who still run this place.
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Republicans hold four of the county’s six congressional seats. There’s buttoned-up Ed Royce, the quintessential Southern California Republican, who is retiring after 26 years on the job. To his southeast, Walters is facing the fight of her political career. To her west lies Dana Rohrabacher, a Democratic target partially thanks to special counsel Robert Mueller’s interest in him and his chats with Julian Assange. And, down the coast, voters are saying good-bye to Darrell Issa, who’s ditching Congress after barely squeaking by to re-election in 2016.
Today less than half white, roughly one-third Latino, and nearly one-fifth Asian American, Orange County would appear from the outside to be a reasonable target for Democrats. At least 18 serious Democrats are running for one of the four Republican seats. The county is heavily, and famously, suburban, and the GOP is losing ground fast in areas like it: Donald Trump in 2016 became the third straight Republican presidential nominee to fall short of 50 percent in the suburbs nationwide. When Hillary Clinton won Orange County by beating Trump in 2016, she became the first Democrat to do so in 80 years, since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected with 61 percent of the national vote.
Millions of people watch The Real Housewives of Orange County, notes Gil Cisneros, a naval veteran turned lottery winner turned philanthropist who’s now one of at least six Democrats running for the seat soon to be vacated by Royce. “That paints the image of being this affluent, white community,” Cisneros says. “Parts of it are. But that’s not the majority of the county.” The caricature of a lily white, country club-lined Orange County is out-of-date. The territory far more accessible to Democrats than most outsiders realize.
When I asked Walters if her race is competitive, her answer was a straightforward “No.” She doesn’t buy that her seat is up for grabs, and she insisted that tax cuts are the reason Republicans are going to win in this hotbed of fiscal conservatism, not to mention keep their majority.
“We’re still very much a Republican county,” Walters said, pointing to the margins in local congressional races over the last few elections. “They”—Democrats—“think just because Hillary Clinton won these districts that they can win, and I don’t subscribe to that same idea. If you look at my race, I got 37,000 more votes than Donald Trump did.”
But to many of the state’s top GOP strategists, lawmakers, and donors, 2016’s results sent a distinctly different signal. “The canary is coughing,” said Sean Walsh, an aide to former Gov. Pete Wilson for decades. “I’m sorry, but you’re deluding yourself if you don’t think there’s some sort of dynamic that’s occurring in those districts.”
When he chose Fountain Valley to kick off his 1984 re-election campaign after the Republican convention, Ronald Reagan shone a spotlight on Orange County, a coastal strip that was largely well-off, stacked with retirees and military families, and nearly 80 percent white. Just 10 years earlier, when Yorba Linda’s Richard Nixon landed back home after resigning the presidency, 5,000 locals greeted him. Starting in 1940, the county—whose local airport is named after John Wayne—voted Republican in 19 straight presidential elections.
For decades, this area just outside of Los Angeles, stretching from La Habra in the north to San Clemente in the south, was something of a laboratory for conservative ideology. Orange County birthed Nixon and provided Barry Goldwater with some of his staunchest support in 1964. Democrats’ inability to make headway here for years earned the area its nickname: “The Orange Curtain.”
The curtain is fraying. When Royce surprised Republican leaders on Capitol Hill by announcing his retirement on a Monday afternoon in early January, they immediately wondered if the seat he’d held since 1992 was salvageable, multiple GOP campaign pros tasked with saving the district now acknowledge. Over the quarter-century Royce has served in Congress, rising to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, his district changed considerably: It’s now even more highly educated, and it’s two-thirds nonwhite after years of rapid Latino and Asian American growth. In the roughly half of Royce’s territory that fits into Orange County, the Republican registration advantage is down to around 2,000 voters. “This is the kind of district that will tell us whether we have a big fight or a little fight on our hands,” concedes Ohio congressman Steve Stivers, who’s tasked this year with maintaining the House majority as the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman.
Thirty-five years ago, Orange County was around 15 percent Hispanic. It’s more than a third Latino now. (That group is expected to become its biggest within the next 10 years.) Local Republicans point to 1996, when Democrat Loretta Sanchez unseated GOP Rep. Bob Dornan, as their first warning sign. But their troubles go beyond the two-pronged disaster in the rest of the state—explosive Latino growth and Republican toxicity after 1994’s anti-illegal immigration Proposition 187. Local moderates have departed the party in droves. That trend accelerated with the rise of Trump.
In 1992, Republicans’ registration advantage over Democrats in Orange County was roughly 18 points. By 2016, that margin was 4 percent. Voters who decline to side with any party now make up nearly one quarter of the county. Many of them are the exact kind of upper-middle class suburbanites who for years typified Orange County. Now, they can’t stand Trump.
“It clearly is changing,” says Irvine mayor Donald Wagner, a former Republican state assemblyman. “You can’t look at the numbers and be oblivious of that.” Wagner presides over a majority-minority city that’s nearly 40 percent Asian American. Behind his desk are framed pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II and Reagan.
“There is a component of dislike for the president here, and that’s fueling some of it,” he says. “Take that out of the equation—” Wagner sighs, and stops himself. “You can’t in ’18,” he concedes. “Who knows what ’20 holds—and it’s different. But you can’t take that out of the equation.” Trump’s face isn’t on the door-hangers that Ryan’s super PAC, which has field offices throughout southern California, leaves at homes in districts like Walters’. And when California’s Republican leaders asked for high-profile help last year, it was Vice President Mike Pence, not Trump, who swung by the area for October fundraisers.
“The loneliest place in Orange County is for Republicans who are trying to figure out where to go next,” said Brian Forde, a Republican turned Obama White House tech advisor who’s now challenging Walters. “They feel totally abandoned.”
Even so, in March, more than 1,000 locals gathered in Huntington Beach for a rally to support the president that ended in four arrests when they scrapped with counter-protestors. Three months later, in the same Fountain Valley park where Reagan formally announced his re-election campaign, and where a statue of Reagan now stands, 300 Trump fans held another rally.
Huntington Beach and Fountain Valley fall in Rohrabacher’s district, the whitest, wealthiest, most #MAGA-friendly of the bunch. The national Republican Party is counting on Rohrabacher’s local profile, established during 15 congressional terms, to overwhelm his downsides: namely, his unabashed Russophilia at time when the president is under suspicion for his dealings with Moscow.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly blocked Rohrabacher from talking to Trump, and one of Rohrabacher’s opponents, Harley Rouda, wrote to the FBI to flag the incumbent’s August 2017 meeting with Julian Assange. In that session, the congressman has said, he tried to arrange a deal to let Assange escape legal trouble for publishing U.S. government secrets in exchange for evidence that Russia was not WikiLeaks’ source for its trove of emails stolen from Democrats during the 2016 campaign.
Yet if national Republicans are confident about any of the Orange County districts, it’s Rohrabacher’s. A surfer and a passionate advocate of loosened restrictions on marijuana, he has long followed his own muse, a pattern that dates to a 1980s trip to Afghanistan to join a rebel infantry fighting Soviets just after his first election. As national reinforcements fly into California to save Republicans’ House majority, Rohrabacher is being used as an example of how candidates can establish local brands that can overwhelm the daily headlines coming out of the West Wing—as long as Mueller doesn’t get in the way.
Still, recent polling shows Rohrabacher in trouble: One mid-January survey revealed that nearly 9 in 10 of his constituents who disapprove of Trump say they’re unlikely to vote for Rohrabacher. And research conducted by the local Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin late last year, and shared with me, showed that Trump’s approval rating was 17 points underwater in Rohrabacher’s district, and 15 in Royce’s. Trump, Tulchin says, dominated each of the focus groups he ran in Orange County throughout 2017.
But it’s Issa, not Rohrabacher, who was blown down by the national winds before any votes were cast. Anchored in San Diego County, Issa’s district is split between fired-up Democrats and the traditional conservatives in southern Orange County who carried him to a 1,600-vote victory in 2016—the closest race in the country. Four serious Democratic contenders entered the race this time, and Issa—a car security system mogul and former House Oversight Committee chairman—got the message. One day after Royce announced he would retire at the end of the year, Issa did the same.
The mood on the Republican side of Capitol Hill was dark the day Issa pulled the plug on his D.C. career. “There’s no putting lipstick on that: They’re both competitive districts,” Stivers told POLITICO of Royce’s and Issa’s retirements. Another Ohio Republican congressman conceded to the Washington Post that the atmosphere was starting to remind him of 2006, the last time Democrats were on the right side of a wave election that handed them the House.