Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter waves to the crowd after former President Barack Obama introduced her at a Democratic rally in Anaheim on Sept. 8, 2018. ( Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)
IRVINE — It hasn’t always been easy to be a Democrat in the GOP stronghold of Orange County, but after Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate since 1936 to carry this county, Democrats here are energized and hopeful.
That's playing out in local races, as Democrats try to claim technically nonpartisan seats on city councils and in mayor's offices across this county of 3.2 million people.
And, it's playing out with very real national consequences as Democrats try to flip four congressional seats currently held by Republicans — key seats in the Democrats' efforts to retake the House of Representatives.
At a recent campaign event for one of those congressional candidates, Katie Porter, many people said they're also just relieved to find like-minded neighbors.
Susen Kay, who remarked before asking Porter a question that it was nice to be in a room full of Democrats, said it hasn't always felt friendly for Democrats here. She moved to Orange County in 1986 from Chicago, and said she's always been of "liberal persuasion."
"I have always felt like a minority here ... and boy the tide is changing," she said. "The last four, six, eight years you have a different sense in the community here."
It may have changed because Orange County has changed. It’s become more diverse: Over the past 18 years, the white population has shrunk from 51 percent of the population to around 40 percent, as Latino and Asian-American populations have grown.
Perhaps even more telling? The gap between registered Republicans and Democrats has shrunk from 9 points in 2014, the last midterm election, to about 2 percentage points now.
Still, when asked if she’s optimistic about Porter’s chances of beating Rep. Mimi Walters, who has held the seat since 2014, Kay was emphatic.
"No!" she said. "And if anybody is optimistic, they should not be optimistic at all. This is a midterm, and if you look at the number of people who voted in the primary — the number of Democrats and independents versus Republicans — more Republicans still came out. No, they should not be confident she can win at all. They need to go out and get every vote and every house they can."
But other Democrats are more hopeful.
Fran Sdao, who chairs the local Democratic party, said President Trump's low popularity with many voters has helped the party register more Democrats and even encouraged some Republicans to jump ship.
When asked if it feels different to tell people she's a Democrat in Orange County than it did a decade ago, Sdao laughed.
"Well, first of all you wouldn't have said it out loud," she said, offering an example of how quickly the vibe has changed.
"A couple of years ago we had a new Democratic Club — the Democratic Women of South County — and we had women who didn't want their husbands to know that they were joining a Democratic Club," she said. "And some of it was because they owned businesses in their town, and it might not help their business — which is you know really hard as the chair of the party to hear. But that's indicative of the attitude."
But now, Sdao added, "The demographics in Orange County are changing. The older white Republicans are dying off — not to be mean, but they are. And you know new younger folks are moving in and in looking at things very differently.
"So now we're loud and proud. We are out of the closet. We are on the street corner. We are marching in the streets, we're on the beaches, we're the malls," she said.
Not surprisingly, Fred Whitaker, who heads up the county Republican party, disagreed that the decline in GOP voters will necessarily mean a blue wave washing over this county.
"We still control 66.6 percent of all seats," he said "I think that we're going to hold all of the seats because we have great organizational methods. And the voters on the Republican side are actually really highly motivated."
If he's right, it will be a lot harder for Democrats to flip the House. But if Democrats win even some of the races they are targeting, it could have implications here and across the nation.