Two Races, One Theme in Orange County

A running tally of absentee ballots at the campaign headquarters of Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva.  (John Myers, KQED)

FULLERTON — Steven Logwood seems to have a pretty good BS detector when it comes to politicians.

Standing on the front door step of his modest Fullerton home, the father of two knows who that knock on the door is coming from this time of year, with candidates in this battleground community of Orange County vying for his vote.

And he's very clear about what won’t work to win his vote.

Assemblymember Sharon Quirk Silva responds to questions from voter Steven Logwood at his Fullerton home.
Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva responds to questions from voter Steven Logwood at his Fullerton home. (John Myers/KQED) (John Myers, KQED)

"A lot of time with politicians, it's this 'political speak'," said Logwood. "'I'm for education, I'm for low crime.' Well, who's not?  'I'm for more jobs.'  Well, who's not?"

So what does he want instead?

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"It's really important to enumerate your ideas," said Logwood. "Specific things."

The focus of his quizzing on this particular day was Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk Silva (D-Fullerton), a freshman legislator in a heated contest in one of California’s most closely watched legislative races this fall.

Orange County is, in fact, home to two of the season's biggest battles: the 65th Assembly district contest between Quirk Silva and GOP challenger Young Kim, as well as the race for the 34th state Senate district between Republican Janet Nguyen and Democrat Jose Solorio.

On paper, the two districts share only a fraction of voters and geography in Orange County's bustling cities. But in practice, the races feature much of the same messaging; the same swirling mix of partisan and ethnic appeals; and the same focus by Republicans to block -- or even break -- the supermajority power of Democrats in the statehouse.

"These are very fascinating races," said Scott Lay, whose daily state politics email, The Nooner, has closely covered the electoral fight in his native Orange County.

This is, after all, what used to be the beating heart of California Republican politics. And although Republican registration still prevails in Orange County, the numbers are ever so shifting toward future elections decided by razor-thin margins.

In the state Senate race, an open seat due to term limits, Democrats held an almost 5 percentage point lead in voter registration in the most recent report (new numbers are coming before Nov. 4).  Still, elections are won by those who show up. The historic low turnout in the June primary, resulting in perhaps a more GOP-friendly electorate, helped Republican Nguyen best Democrat Solorio by almost 17,000 votes.

Young Kim, GOP challenger in the 65th Assembly district race. (Young Kim Campaign)
Young Kim, GOP challenger in the 65th Assembly district race. (Young Kim Campaign)

Since June, the battle has intensified. Campaign finance records show about a combined $6 million raised by the candidates and independent groups, the most of any state Senate race in California.

"We've invested a lot of dollars into our field program," said Solorio, a former assemblyman and current community college trustee.

But in a telling comment, Solorio also talked about how door-to-door, get-out-the-vote efforts are a way to "mitigate" what's seen as a Democratic base that may not be so motivated to cast a ballot this fall.

And that can easily swing the electoral outcome.

When Democrats were energized by presidential politics in 2012, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by almost 9 percentage points in this Orange County legislative district. But roll back the clock just two years earlier, to the last nonpresidential election, and you'll find that GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman beat Jerry Brown in the governor's race here by 5 percentage points.

Jose Solorio
Jose Solorio, Democratic candidate for the 34th state Senate district and a former assemblyman. (Jose Solorio Campaign)

Republicans are also motivated by another factor: If they win in Orange County, they very likely will block Democrats from having a supermajority of seats in the Senate -- a power with which Democrats can block or pass anything they want.

"It comes down to issues," said GOP candidate Nguyen, a sitting county supervisor. "I believe in limited government, but I also believe that the government needs to work for the people."

Nguyen and her fellow Republican, Assembly candidate Kim, are running campaigns aimed at blocking Democratic power in Sacramento. Both are also warning Orange County voters that Democrats could -- if they retain their two-thirds legislative supermajorities -- tinker with the sacrosanct property tax limits under 1978's Proposition 13.

Driving across the two districts, north from Huntington Beach through Westminster and Buena Park, one sees signs plastered everywhere for two GOP women urging voters to "Protect Prop. 13." Some legislative Democrats have indeed suggested possible changes or alterations to the tax-limiting constitutional amendment, but a largely centrist bloc of lawmakers has kept those proposals from gaining steam.

Still, the GOP candidates here think that won't last if their Democratic challengers win.

"The time is now," said Kim, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), of the need to win her Assembly race and block changes to Prop. 13.  "If we don't do it, we may be stuck."

Kim's battle against incumbent Quirk Silva has also been an expensive one, nearing the $4 million mark in candidate and independent committee cash.

Janet Nguyen
Janet Nguyen, Republican candidate for for the 34th state Senate district. (Janet Nguyen Campaign)

The two races also feature matchups that raise an interesting question -- both in this election and in future elections -- about how the diverse community prioritizes its politics. In both contests, a Latino Democrat faces an Asian-American Republican. Neither community, though, is monolithic -- especially Orange County's Asian community.

"Are voters looking at candidates with party loyalty or ethnic loyalty?" asks political observer Scott Lay. "And then is ethnic loyalty, particularly in the Asian-American community, broken down by Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipinos?"

This helps explain why all four candidates have turned to what politicians do in uncertain times: try to maximize turnout among their party's base, then try to peel off just enough fence-sitting voters to make it across the finish line first.

And none of the candidates seem to offer much hope for voters who may be seeking some political middle ground.

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"There are striking differences," Quirk Silva said.