Republicans Hope Orange County's Historic Anti-Tax Sentiments Can Hold Off Blue Wave

2 min
Republican candidate for US Congress Young Kim (C) makes campaign calls to voters with volunteers at her campaign office in Yorba Linda, California. Behind her are signs for her campaign and the repeal of the gas tax, Proposition 6. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

In an attempt to stave off a serious wave of Democratic House challengers, Republicans in Orange County are turning to a tried and true tactic: stoking resentment of taxes handed down by Sacramento.

It's why despite growing acceptance of local tax increases, and the relative unpopularity of federal tax reform in the region, Republicans want to put the issue of taxes front and center in a handful of competitive congressional races. Specifically, GOP candidates are taking aim at an increase in the state's gas tax and vehicle licensing fees, which the state legislature enacted last year to pay for road repairs.

Proposition 6, on the November ballot, would repeal the 12-cents per gallon gas tax increase and licensing fees.

It's a familiar strategy in the traditionally conservative county. In 1978, Southern California businessmen Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann teamed with Orange County state Sen. John Briggs to engineer a tax revolt against Sacramento: passing Proposition 13 to dramatically limit property tax increases in the state.

It's unclear whether Proposition 6 can drum up the same anti-tax fervor. In a recent survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, opponents of the repeal outnumbered supporters statewide by a 13-point margin — and by 15 points in Orange and San Diego counties. The polling was conducted by reading the official ballot language, which emphasizes the loss in transportation funding over any mention of repeal. The same poll found voters in favor of "a more general question about repealing the recent increases."

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Republicans are still confident that higher prices at the pump will turn voters against Democratic congressional candidates, and turn the conversation away from the actions of Republicans in Washington, D.C.

"The gas tax is a great issue for us," said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. "Because the gas tax and the vehicle license fee are probably the most unpopular thing the Legislature has done in the last two years, if not the last 10."

Orange County Republicans need only point back to June for one casualty claimed by the gas tax increase. Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman was recalled from his Fullerton seat in a campaign driven by opposition to his vote for Senate Bill 1.

"The average person in California doesn't necessarily know who their elected representative is, but they obviously became very aware of the gas tax," Newman said. "It has a visceral quality that I think was easily mined."

Newman was one of 27 state senators (including one Republican) who voted for the increase. But in his recall campaign, opponents characterized his support as the "deciding vote" to pass the legislation. He said the direct interaction that drivers have with the price at the pump could make the tax an attractive issue for Republicans to continue hammering in local congressional races.

"Certainly if you can focus a voter's interest and anger in one direction, that's useful and people have gotten very good at that," Newman said. "The response is actually very complicated, to make the argument that California's infrastructure is in need of investment."

Faced with the task of defending President Trump (who remains deeply unpopular in the county) and their votes to roll back health care protections (California's entire GOP delegation voted to repeal Obamacare last year), it's no surprise that Republicans are welcoming a chance to talk about tax repeal.

The conversation has put some Democrats hoping to flip Orange County seats in the position of defending the tax hike.

Gil Cisneros, who is running in the 39th Congressional District against Republican Young Kim, opposes the repeal. So does Democrat Harley Rouda, who is challenging incumbent Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th District.

"I actually think it's comical that congressman Rohrabacher is making this an issue in the race," Rouda said. "If this is the issue he wants to run on, then he should resign from Congress and run for state Assembly."

In the neighboring 45th District, Democrat Katie Porter took a different path, announcing that she will vote for the repeal. She's vying for Mimi Walters' seat, the incumbent Republican.

"When families are facing what's going to be an economic shock of thousands of dollars come April, this is not the time for Orange County families to also be paying higher gas taxes," Porter said.

That "economic shock" is the enactment of federal tax reform, the result of Republican legislation signed by Trump in December.

It was that bill, and not state issues like the gas tax, that many Republicans saw as the levee to hold back a potential "blue wave."

But in areas like suburban Orange County, the massive cuts made to the corporate tax rate were overshadowed by a new $10,000 cap on the amount of state and local taxes that residents can deduct from their federal burden — a big hit to residents with high incomes and home values.

"It's going to be an impact on us," said Carolyn Cavecche, president and CEO of the Orange County Taxpayers Association, which opposed the federal tax reform bill. "For people at the national level to say that other states were 'carrying people' who were able to deduct their state and local taxes is ludicrous."

Amid local resistance, Orange County Republicans split on the tax reform bill: Walters voted to support the measure, while Rohrabacher and fellow Republican Darrell Issa, who represents the southern portion of the county, opposed it.

The loss of local deductions took tax reform off the table as a campaign issue for O.C. Republicans. And while Porter has focused on the issue in her campaign against Walters, Cavecche said the myriad of changes within the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act have made it a difficult issue for Democrats to drive home.

"It's too hard for voters to be able to grasp. They will next year when they fill out their federal tax forms," Cavecche said. "I think all of a sudden when they get to the bottom line there's going to be a, ‘What the heck?' But it's an issue that can't be explained and sold well."

The Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes broadcast and national cable ad-buy data from Kantar Media/CMAG, finds that only a fraction of tax-related campaign ads in California races are related to the tax reform legislation.

In September, 12 percent of federal ads mentioned taxes, while just 4 percent of ads mentioned tax reform. That's up from August, when just 1 percent of ads for federal office in California mentioned tax reform.

If the blurred partisan lines on tax reform have complicated the Orange County-as-anti-tax-bastion stereotype, then so too has the proliferation of local taxes on ballots across the county.

Five cities (Garden Grove, Laguna Beach, Placentia, Santa Ana and Seal Beach) are proposing sales tax increases on the November ballot, largely to address rising pension costs.

This follows the approval of sales tax hikes in Fountain Valley, La Palma, Stanton and Westminster in 2016.

In the past, fiscal plights did little to persuade voters to hike taxes. When Orange County went bankrupt in the mid-1990s, residents voted down a sales tax that would have helped pay off debts.

Now, local jurisdictions are hoping that the momentum of a blue wave will prove a rising tide for municipal finances, says Fred Smoller, political science professor at Chapman University.

"I think that they're counting on a larger Democratic turnout, particularly in the Latino community, that's going to carry those tax increases forward," Smoller said.

Smoller adds that Orange County's changing demographics are slowly shifting views on the issue of taxation.

"Originally when the boat people came over here following the Vietnam War, their main issue was anti-communism and anti-big government," he said. "But the second generation has more or less forgotten the Vietnam War. And they're trying to have health care, they need help paying for college, they realize they can't do it all themselves."

Whether support for local taxes will eventually grow into a greater acceptance for tax measures of all kinds remains to be seen.

"There is a difference between how taxpayers look at Sacramento and how taxpayers look at their mayor and their city councilmember sitting down the street," Carolyn Cavecche said. "I run into my mayor at the grocery store, I see my councilmember at Home Depot on the weekends. So there's still a feeling of accountability and I'm going to see this money."

Cavecche is skeptical that any tax issue — local, state or federal — will decide the competitive House races that have put an outsized spotlight on Orange County this fall.

"Sometimes I wonder if the federal tax cut and this gas tax, if it's all just going to be kind of lost in this massive loud noise of people in the polls," she said.

KQED's Marisa Lagos contributed to this report.

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