How the Blue Wave Swelled to a Tsunami in Orange County

AP Photo/Chris Carlson, File

Democratic Representative-elect Katie Porter speaks during an election night event on in Tustin, California. 

Ever since California’s Orange County helped power the rise of Barry Goldwater and the Reagan Revolution, political observers have viewed it as the quintessential Republican stronghold.  Such congressional representatives as Dana Rohrabacher and Robert Dornan personified the belligerent far right, the Orange County Register promoted a hard-edged libertarian worldview, and Republican lawmakers such as Christopher Cox, Darrel Issa, and Ed Royce wielded considerable clout on Capitol Hill.     

Named for orange groves long vanished, the suburban region south of Los Angeles was known for Disneyland, beautiful beaches, master planned communities, and a powerful conservative business class that exercised national political influence via the Lincoln Club, a high-rolling conservative fundraising group. Republican senators from across the nation made the pilgrimage to Orange County much as Democrats flocked to West Los Angeles and San Francisco to fill their coffers. 

But nothing lasts forever. When Santa Ana, located in the center of Orange County, became one of the most Latino cities in the nation, the time was ripe for the upset victory of Loretta Sanchez over Bob Dornan in 1996. Additionally, a post-industrial boom transformed the county’s economy into one of the most dynamic in the nation. For decades, wealthy real-estate developers such as Donald Bren (of The Irvine Company) had been the power behind the throne, picking and choosing who would serve on the Board of Supervisors and who would be the Republican nominee for governor. But OC also hosted the U.S. headquarters of pharmaceutical giant home Allergan and dozens of medical device companies, and was home to Quiksilver, Obey, and the surfwear industry. The bond giant PIMCO, the design teams of world’s leading automotive companies, and a growing tech industry also called Orange County their home. When then Irvine-based chipmaker Broadcom burst onto the scene in 1998 with an IPO that made its cofounders billionaires (whose wealth surpassed even Bren’s), it was clear that economic and social change was afoot. Currently home to 3.19 million people, Orange County has become one of the nation’s economic hubs; led by Costa Mesa, Irvine and Newport Beach, OC now has more commercial office space than San Francisco.

Two other episodes—one a huge development fight and the other a power struggle at the University of California, Irvine—showed cracks in the Republican fortress. During the 1990s retrenchment of the U.S. military, the closure of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, south of Irvine and over the hills from Laguna Beach, set off a ten-year struggle over whether to turn the former base into an international airport. To the conservative elites in Newport Beach it seemed a no-brainer. John Wayne Airport had a new terminal but short runways and departing flights passed directly over the heads of Newport residents. By contrast, the 4,700-acre Marine Corps base enjoyed enormous runways. If the Bay Area had both San Francisco International and San Jose International, they argued, why shouldn’t the greater LA area feature LAX and Orange County International? But Irvine was led by its liberal mayor, Larry Agran, a gifted political strategist who understood that the airport could be defeated if the south county cities, many of them staunchly Republican, formed an alliance with the more progressive Irvine. In 2002, after a decade of countywide ballot measures, south county foes defeated the Newport powerbrokers. Urging that the heart of the base be turned into a “Great Park,” they won a ballot measure that enabled Irvine to gain control of the land from the Department of the Navy. The city then began developing both a massive park and housing at the site.  

Second, in 2007, UC Irvine announced that Erwin Chemerinsky, one of the nation’s leading constitutional scholars and an unabashed liberal, would be the founding dean of the UC Irvine School of Law. The donor class pushed back, and Chancellor Michael Drake subsequently rescinded the offer. In the ensuing brouhaha, both conservative and liberal scholars across the nation came to Chemerinsky’s defense and Drake again made the offer. With Chemerinsky at the helm, the fledgling law school soon became ranked among the nation’s top law schools thanks in large part to the success Chemerinsky (now dean of UC Berkeley Law) experienced in recruiting top-notch faculty such as Richard Hasen, a scholar on election law and campaign finance law, and Katie Porter, an expert on bankruptcy and the financial services industry.  

When both Barack Obama found a plethora of votes in Orange County and then Hillary Clinton actually carried it, observers finally took notice that OC was home to a large number of Democrats. It was not just Indivisible groups founded in 2017 that painted Orange County blue in 2018. It was also old-line Democratic foot soldiers such as Fran Sdao, the current chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County (DPOC), who understood that engagement and activism could bring Democrats victories in school board and city council elections in hitherto Republican terrain. Sdao had led a successful effort to recall two Capistrano Unified School District trustees and elect a Democratic majority to the board. In November, Democrats led by Mayor-elect Katrina Foley gained control of the Costa Mesa City Council and Tiffany Ackley won a seat on the Aliso Viejo City Council. Before jumping into the race to replace Representative Darrell Issa in CA-49, the coastal district that encompasses both Orange and northern San Diego Counties, environmental lawyer Mike Levin cut his political teeth as executive director of the OC Democratic Party. The strong liberal challenge to Senator Dianne Feinstein by former state Senate leader Kevin De León was fueled by the fundraising guidance of Melahat Rafiei who became an activist during Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential run and then helped grow the DPOC. She is now a member of the DNC. 

The Howard Dean campaign also became a turning point for Lita Robinow. Once a fundraiser for former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd in Connecticut, Robinow had previously worked in West Los Angeles politics as a staffer for then-Assemblyman Mel Levine, who was a member of the Berman-Waxman political machine. Frustrated after Howard Dean skipped Orange County while visiting Riverside and San Diego in 2004, Robinow and others founded a Democratic PAC during Barack Obama’s 2007 presidential run. When more than 100 people showed up in the rain for the initial meeting, Robinow knew she was onto something. There were a lot of liberal Democrats in Orange County, many of them people who have moved to the county since 1990. (In 1990, Republicans held a 22 percentage point voter registration lead over Democrats. As of October 2018, that lead was down to 1.1 percent, according to state data.) Seeking to form a group to complement the OC Democratic Party, Robinow spoke to her friend Cathy Unger, former co-chair of the Los Angeles Women’s Political Committee and a past chair of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. She then organized DemOC PAC, a political action committee that hosts speakers and raises money from OC activists for congressional races across the nation. In its first decade, DemOC PAC helped fund scores of House and Senate candidates nationally, but made no donations in local congressional races (other than Loretta Sanchez’s) because the others were not yet winnable. Starting in 2017, DemOC PAC became an activist group as well and contributed scores of volunteers to the Katie Porter and Harley Rouda campaigns. (Full Disclosure: The author is married to Robinow and helped the PAC’s political research committee identify national races in the 2018 cycle.)  

After November 2016, when Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry Orange County since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the calculus on what was and wasn’t winnable in Orange County decisively shirted. Soon thereafter, Katie Porter, Harley Rouda, Mike Levin, and Gil Cisneros, along with dozens of other Democratic hopefuls, announced they were running for Congress in four currently, and historically, Republican congressional districts.

But for the heavily Latino district in the county’s northern quadrant, the 2018 cycle was the first in which Orange County experienced truly contested House elections where Democrats fielded candidates with strong resumes and deep pockets. In CA-45 which includes Irvine, Tustin, and Orange, and south county Republican strongholds such as Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita, Porter had to compete during the primary against such strong Democratic candidates as her fellow UCI Law Professor Dave Min and Tustin-native Brian Forde, who’d worked in the Obama White House as a science and technology adviser.  

In Rohrabacher’s CA-48, the coastal district that includes working-class Huntington Beach as well as affluent Newport Beach, Corona Del Mar, and Laguna Beach, Rouda, a former Republican who had gained the state Democratic Party’s nod, had to defeat Hans Keirstead, a former UC Irvine stem cell scientist and multimillion-dollar entrepreneur who was endorsed by the national Democratic Party. In the June jungle primary, Rouda placed second, edging Keirstead by just 126 votes. Fearing that a close contest between the two Democrats might enable Rohrabacher’s Republican challenger, former Republican state legislative leader Scott Baugh, to come in second and move on to an all-GOP run-off against Rohrabacher in November, national Democratic groups assaulted Baugh with a barrage of negative ads that sunk him to fourth place. Rohrabacher won the primary, but with just 30.3 percent of the primary vote, the one-time Reagan speechwriter was on electoral life-support heading into November. 

In 2017, a realistic appraisal of Orange County prospects was that Democrats had a good chance to flip two of the four house seats targeted in Orange County. To win three out of four or to sweep the board was a tall order, not just because of California’s top-two primary, but also because Republicans still held a significant edge over Democrats in party registration, with No Party Preference (NPP) voters holding the wild cards. As of May 2018, Republicans constituted 38.2 percent, Democrats 30.6 percent and NPPs 26.8 percent of the registered voters in the Irvine-centered 45th Congressional District, represented by Republican Mimi Walters; while in Rohrabacher’s 48th, Republicans accounted for 40.3 percent, Democrats 29.9 percent, and NPPs 24 percent of the electorate. Most political pros looked at the Walters seat (CA-45) and thought it would require a two-cycle effort for a Democrat to capture. 

It did, in fact, take two cycles for the Democrats to wrest Issa’s CA-49 from the Republicans. where Mike Levin won comfortably on November 6. After barely defeating Democrat Doug Applegate in 2016, Issa stepped down rather than run again. After Levin won second place in June’s jungle primary just ahead of two other Democrats, Republicans looked at the numbers and decided his GOP general election opponent, Diane Harkey, stood little chance to prevail in November. They were right: Levin won by more than a ten-point margin. 

In the races for both the Walters and Rohrabacher seats, environmental issues clearly helped the Democrats. The mounting evidence of climate change convinced many moderate and college-educated Republicans that doing nothing is not an option. In addition, the experience of California, a state at the forefront of environmental regulation, provided ample evidence that a strong economy and environmental stewardship are not at odds. A critical turn in the CA-48 primary came when architect Laura Oatman bowed out of the race. She told Rouda she would endorse his candidacy on the condition that he strongly support action on climate change. Rouda used the issue to great effect against Rohrabacher. A well-to-do Laguna businessman, Rouda’s entrepreneurial success and former Republican background fit the upscale coastal district. His candidacy gave voice to affluent onetime Reagan voters aghast at what the Trump Republican Party has come to represent.  

A 30-year veteran of Washington, the Putin-defending Rohrabacher was living on borrowed time. In one television ad by Democrats, Rohrabacher was depicted as an astronaut floating in space as mission control called out “Earth to Dana.” The voice-over noted that the congressman believed homeowners should not sell to gays and that schools would be safer if students learned how to shoot guns. “Dana, do you copy?” mission control chimed in. “I think we’ve lost him completely.”  

In CA-39, the Democrats got lucky. The inland district that includes Fullerton and Yorba Linda (Richard Nixon’s birthplace) and stretches into parts of Los Angeles County is increasingly Latino (32.6 percent) and Asian (28.5 percent) as well as Anglo (34.1 percent). Its longtime incumbent, Republican Ed Royce, was a widely respected legislator who had always steered clear of the party’s rightwing fringe. If Royce had chosen to run, he probably could have won.  Instead, his former staffer Young Kim narrowly lost to newcomer Gil Cisneros, who self-funded his campaign with the millions he’d won in the state lottery. Cisneros benefited from the resources that liberal activist Tom Steyer and the California Democratic Party unleashed in the 39th to register Latinos and millennials.

When law professor Katie Porter, a protégé of Elizabeth Warren announced she would challenge Mimi Walters, many people, both in the district and nationally, thought she was too liberal to win in the heart of OC. To win CA-45, even as a moderate Democrat, is a heavy lift.  How did Porter pull it off?  

While her main Democratic primary opponents, Dave Min and Brian Forde, played to the moderate center, Porter’s polling demonstrated that many district Democratic voters strongly approved of Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, two U.S. senators identified with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Having been a student of Warren’s at Harvard Law School, Porter was later recruited by then California Attorney General Harris to play a lead role in California’s investigation of mortgage fraud and abuse by the big banks.  

“People did not know who I was, but having Elizabeth and Kamala vouch for me put me on the map,” said Porter. Her two Democratic opponents ran to her right. Min took moderate stances on the issues and did not seem to understand how much President Trump had altered traditional patterns; caught in a time warp, Min appeared to be running a campaign suitable to 2014, when the Republican brand was far stronger. He finished third. Forde also saw moderation as the key to crossover appeal, but finished back in the pack.

After coming in second in the jungle primary with 20 percent of the vote while Walters coasted with 53 percent, Porter kept pounding away at fundraising and told liberal interest groups trying to decide which Democratic challengers had the best chance to flip seats that Walters was vulnerable to an upset. While Porter proudly proclaimed her support from EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood, she crafted a campaign that didn’t run from her progressive stances, but which focused on those issues where Walter’s rightwing orthodoxy ran counter to the needs and beliefs of her Orange County constituents. Yes, Porter was all for protecting the Affordable Care Act and preexisting conditions, and if asked, she could provide a detailed wonkish answer about why Medicare for All makes good policy sense. But she did not make Medicare for All the centerpiece of her campaign. And after having established during the primary her credentials fighting for families against the big banks during the decade-old foreclosure debacle, in the general election campaign Porter shifted to more current topics like fighting against U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s attack on public education. Irvine has one of the top-ranked school districts in the nation and people in the rest of the 45th are also strongly supportive of public education. Polling also demonstrated to Porter, a single mother of three children, that Orange County voters want something done to curb gun violence. Accepting no corporate PAC money, no big oil money, and no gun lobby money, Porter campaigned against the moneyed interests that dominate Washington. 

Walters, a veteran of the California Assembly and a two-term member of Congress, did not seem to realize that her votes for the Republican tax bill and repeal of the Affordable Care Act put her in serious jeopardy. After voting with the Republican House to kill Obamacare, Walters appeared in a White House photo behind President Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan. In addition, unlike Representatives Issa and Rohrabacher, Walters supported the gutting of the state’s income and property tax deductions in the GOP tax bill the president signed into law. In a district full of affluent taxpayers who’d have to shell out more under the new law, her vote became politically toxic. It was certainly too much for realtors who in previous elections had supported Walters. Realtors funded full-page frontpage wraps around the Orange County Register to let the Register’s conservative readership know that Mimi (called MeMe in the attack piece) had voted against the interests of California homeowners. The California and National Associations of Realtors PACs spent a combined $3 million opposing Walters and supporting Porter. (Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy had assured his wavering fellow California Republicans that he’d get them enough financial support so they could weather whatever flak came their way for voting Yes on the tax bill. In November’s midterms, California’s Republican House delegation was halved from 14 members to seven.}   

Many in the large Iranian, South Asia, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese populations in Irvine and the substantial Latino populations in Tustin and Orange seethed when President Trump attempted to ban Muslims, bashed China, vilified Mexicans and castigated immigrants and people of color.  Walters was either clueless about this or did not care. And women of all ages and ethnicities across Walters’ district were powerfully angry at the president for his unrelenting sexism and misogyny; the intensity of women’s opposition to the president was evident in the many hundreds of Porter volunteers who walked the precincts.  

In the last month of the campaign, Porter drove home the most defining issue in the campaign: that Mimi Walters had voted with President Trump 99 percent of the time. One television ad sang the refrain to “99 Bottles of Beer,” dramatizing the level of Walters’ subservience to Trump. The voters of CA-45, like the voters across Orange County, California, and much of the nation said enough. If the midterms were a referendum on the Trump presidency, as both the president and his opponents wanted the 2018 midterm election to be, Orange County spoke loud and clear: thumbs down to the man who would be Caesar.   

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