The Buzz is the Register’s weekly political news column.
The new year could redefine the political reputation of Orange County, long known as “America’s Most Republican County.” Here are the big stories to watch.
Battle for the House
Orange County is at the heart of Democrats’ effort to take control of the House of Representatives. Twenty-four seats would need to be flipped and the county is home to four of the targeted districts, thanks to the county’s shifting demographics and to Hillary Clinton winning all four of those GOP-held congressional districts in 2016.
So far, there were 32 challengers for those four seats — including 25 Democrats who backed up their aspirations with several million dollars of early fundraising last year.
Several prominent handicappers have tagged the races of Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, as tossups. Tougher for Democrats will be incumbent Reps. Ed Royce, R-Yorba Linda, and Mimi Walters, R-Laguna Beach, who won by broad margins in 2016, have largely steered clear of controversy and have identities distinct from President Donald Trump.
The growing legion of anti-Trump activists, meanwhile, are largely motivated by a passionate dislike for the president and pounce on every opportunity to link GOP incumbents to the commander in chief.
Republicans traditionally vote in higher proportions than Democrats in mid-term elections. Democrats’ fortunes will depend heavily on whether millennials, minorities and women turn out in large numbers, as all three groups now favor Democrats in the county. Additionally, if current polling holds, two Democrats — and no Republicans — will be vying for governor in November, which wouldn’t help GOP turnout.
A wild card will be whether strong GOP challengers emerge in any of the four districts. The large Democratic fields could open the door for two Republicans to advance out of the top-two open primary, shutting out Democrats’ hopes for November.
Rohrabacher’s district has the biggest GOP lead in voter registration of any county House seat, 41-percent Republican to 30-percent Democrat. But the 15-term incumbent, who’s long marched to his own drummer, has been attracting headlines that have led many activists and handicappers to consider him a ripe target.
The venerable Roll Call news outlet listed him as the fifth most vulnerable House member, largely because of those headlines. Among them:
Rohrabacher downplayed Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood comments, has met with people linked to the Kremlin and advocated friendlier relations with Russia, met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, had his aide to a Foreign Affairs subcommittee fired and has seen his travel and hearing requests get greater scrutiny from the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Republican leadership.
Orange turning blue
Republicans’ advantage in the county’s voter registration peaked in 1990 at 22 percentage points. By 2010, it was half that and shrinking fast.
By the 2016 election — in which the county voted for the Democratic presidential nominee for the first time since 1936 — the margin was 3.8 points. It’s now 3.3 points with a myriad of Democratic clubs and resistance groups launching voter drives.
While Democrats may not surpass Republicans in voter registration this year, it appears to be only a matter of time.
Latinos are 34 percent of the county’s population and 18 percent of registered voters, with the electoral growth trend expected to continue as more become citizens and more reach voting age. Of those Latino voters, 53 percent are Democrats, 21 percent are Republicans and 26 percent are independents or third party members, according to a Political Data Inc. analysis in 2016.
In 2002, voters under 35 were 42 percent Republican and 29 percent Democrat. By 2016, they were 36 percent Democrat and 26 percent Republican, with the rest independent or third party.
County Republicans are largely playing defense so far this election cycle, particularly in terms of their four House seats and their voter registration advantage. But a key GOP offensive is their effort to recall freshman state Sen. Josh Newman, R-Fullerton, which has attracted Republican support from throughout the state.
Newman upset Republican Ling Ling Chang in 2016, helping give Democrats a two-thirds majority in both statehouse chambers. That enabled the party to pass new taxes without a single GOP vote.
In 2017, they raised the gas tax and vehicle-license fee to fund a 10-year, $52-billion roads and transportation improvement package, getting the bare minimum of votes for passage with one Democrat opposed and one Republican in favor.
Newman voted with the majority and was quickly targeted for a recall based solely on the new tax. The effort qualified and is expected to go before voters on the June ballot.
Newman was chosen because he is considered the legislative Democrat most vulnerable to being replaced by a Republican, thereby breaking the supermajority in the Senate.
“Lions don’t attack every gazelle,” said activist and San Diego talk radio host Carl DeMaio, who has helped lead the recall. “They attack the one that’s slowest and weakest and they work together, as a team, and share the meal.”
A new sheriff
In each of the last two decades, the county has elected a new sheriff — and it will do so once again in 2018 when Sandra Hutchens steps down after 10 years in the post.
Hutchens’ tenure has not been quite as troubled as that of predecessor Mike Carona, who spent 4 years in federal prison for corruption. But while she was initially embraced as a stabilizing force, the past couple years have seen rough waters.
Both the state and federal justice departments are investigating alleged misuse of jailhouse informants by the Sheriff’s and District Attorney’s Offices. There’s been criticism of the lax protocols that may have contributed to the escape of three inmates in 2016. And early this year the ACLU issued a scathing report on the county jails, citing excessive violence and unhealthy living conditions while calling for Hutchens to resign.
The top contenders for the job are Hutchens’ second in command, Undersheriff Don Barnes, and Aliso Viejo Mayor Dave Harrington, a retired county Sheriff’s Department sergeant.
Barnes, who represents a continuation of Hutchens’ policies, has endorsements from Hutchens, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, three of the five county supervisors, former county GOP Chairman Scott Baugh, four Republican Congress members, five Republican state legislators and 19 local mayors and council members.
Harrington, running as a reform candidate, has far fewer high-level GOP endorsements, but does list backing from 26 local mayors and council members. Many of those supporters represent cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Department for police services and have expressed concerns that they may be overcharged for those services.
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