Democrats Target Conservative Stronghold: Orange County

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Democratic activists in Orange County are targeting Republican Rep. Ed Royce, who's been in Congress since 1993. (Eric Thayer/Getty Images)

All you need to do is fly into Orange County's John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana to be reminded of the county's past history as a bastion of conservative values.

But Democrats now see Orange County -- birthplace of Richard Nixon and once fertile territory for the right-wing John Birch Society -- as a place that can help them retake the U.S. House of Representatives next year.

Last November, Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat since 1936 to carry Orange County in a presidential election. Now, hoping to ride that wave further, Democrats are targeting four Republican members of Congress from the O.C.

It won't be easy. But there are signs of Democratic activism.

On a weekday evening in Fullerton, just northeast of Disneyland, dozens of people streamed into a meeting of the liberal activist group Indivisible Orange County. This kind of political energy from Democrats a year away from an election is, to say the least, rare in Orange County.


Among those in the audience was Barbara Sideri. Retired from a job at Cal State Fullerton, Sideri said she never got involved in local politics. Until now.

"I think a lot of people who were sitting at home just being polite and never asking questions and never pushing -- I think a lot of people have hit the streets," Sideri said.

About 60 activists turned out for a Wednesday night meeting of Indivisible in Orange County.
About 60 activists turned out for a Wednesday night meeting of Indivisible in Orange County. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

The 39th Congressional District is represented by Republican Ed Royce. He’s been in Congress since 1993, and Democrat Sideri acknowledged she has voted for him in the past.

But now she and others here tonight are mobilizing to defeat Royce. This chapter of Indivisible was organized by Marian Bodnar, a former Cal State Long Beach music teacher.

"I was livid, surprised, shocked, depressed," Bodnar said. "Everything about having Trump elected" upset her.

Bodnar thinks Royce flies below the radar -- his nice-guy persona masking what she sees as a record that’s out of step in a district where 63 percent of residents are either Latino or Asian.

For example, Royce opposed the Dream Act to help immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. He also gets an "A" grade from the National Rifle Association and a "0%" rating from Planned Parenthood. Bodnar thinks the key to defeating Royce will be voter education.

"I think what we need to do is overcome people’s lack of knowledge about who Ed Royce is," Bodnar said.  "And I think most people don’t pay attention to who their representative is."

But how big a chore will Democrats have in getting voters to focus on Royce or his challengers? A visit to the Fullerton public market suggests they have their work cut out for them.

On a warm weekday evening, families were enjoying music, kids were playing and parents were chatting among themselves. Not surprisingly, politics was not top of mind for most folks, including Sara Gearhart.

For starters, I asked if she knows who her Congress member is.

"I don’t, not off the top of my head," she said, adding that, "if you said his name, I’d say, 'Oh yeah, I know who that is.'"

Reminded that it's Ed Royce, she said, "Yes, I do know that!" Saying she knows very little about him, she said she voted for him.

She’s hardly alone. Asked who her representative was, another voter who wanted to give only her first name, Grace, guessed, "Is that Kamala Harris? I don’t know," before bursting into laughter.

Asked how much she follows politics, Denell Giustorobello from Anaheim said, "none, none whatsoever," adding that  she likes to keep it that way because there's so much acrimony these days.

But she said she is registered to vote.  "Oh yes,  I vote!" she said. "Is it a good vote? I don’t know -- but I do vote."

Interrupted from talking to a friend, Susan Rodriguez  said she doesn't bother to vote.

"It’s not something I want to do lately," Rodriguez said, "because I don’t like none of the options around."

Democrats will have plenty of options this time around. Five Democrats, including one who has loaned his campaign $2 million, have announced they're running against Rep. Royce. There are rumors others might jump in.

Republicans are bracing for the onslaught. And they have a strategy of their own, centered around the Legislature's recent increase in the gas tax. They've targeted freshman Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) for a recall based on his vote for SB 1, the transportation bill that will add 12 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas starting Nov. 1. The GOP is hoping to parlay anger over the gas tax to mobilize Republican voters.

Volunteers at the GOP convention in Anaheim staff a table promoting a repeal of the recent gas tax increase.
Volunteers at the GOP convention in Anaheim staff a table promoting a repeal of the recent gas tax increase. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

At the state Republican Party convention in Anaheim recently, Orange County chairman Fred Whitaker called Orange County “the new ground zero -- the Ohio of the West," meaning a key battleground in Democrats' plans to retake the House of Representatives.

State party chair Jim Brulte said they’re ready for whatever Democrats throw at them.

"We don’t take anything for granted," Brulte said. "We know Nancy Pelosi wants to be speaker again. We fully understand that. But we’re going to do what we can to make sure she doesn’t pick up any seats in California. We think we’re going to be successful."

Democrats have plenty of obstacles to overcome before they can defeat Royce and the other three Orange County Republicans they're targeting -- Mimi Walters, Dana Rohrabacher and Darrell Issa.

Of the four, Issa is widely considered to be most vulnerable, given his razor-thin re-election margin in November. Royce coasted to victory, although Democrats put their organizing efforts elsewhere.

Fullerton College political science professor Jodi Balma called Royce's race "a toss-up."

Balma said this county was no longer the “Orange Curtain” it was in Ronald Reagan’s day. Still she says, the O.C. was still friendly territory for Republicans.

"I call Ed Royce the perfect storm," Balma said. "That is, if everything lines up right, a Democrat can win. But it has to be a cascading series of things that fall in the favor of the Democrat."

Last year, 97 percent of incumbents were re-elected nationwide, including all 4 Republicans from Orange County. Up against the power of incumbency and an off-year turnout that tends to favor Republicans, Democrats have their work cut out for them.