Orange County, Once a GOP Stronghold, Is Increasingly Up for Grabs

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David Boston Angel (center) marks his ballot at Marina Park Community Vote Center on Nov. 3, 2020 in Newport Beach in Orange County. (Apu Gomes/Getty Images)

Orange County has long been known as reliably red, but in the last few elections, Democrats have had reason to celebrate.

Hillary Clinton carried the county in 2016, the first time a Democrat had done so since 1936. Then, in 2018, the “blue wave” crashed over the county, helping to flip four longtime GOP congressional districts to Democratic control.

This year, however, Orange County’s political breakdown is more complicated. Democrats in the county lost ground in Congress, but managed to flip two state Senate seats. Meanwhile, President-elect Joe Biden is currently carrying the county by nine points, outpacing President Trump even in the congressional districts that GOP candidates won.

"Orange County had a long reputation for being a red county, the place where good Republicans came to die, John Wayne Airport, all that stuff," said Fred Smoller, an associate professor of political science at Chapman University. "We're moving to a purple county, not red, not blue like Berkeley, but purple in that there are competitive elections."

Republicans have their own reasons to celebrate this week: Democrat Harley Rouda conceded two days ago to Republican county Supervisor Michelle Steel in the race to represent Huntington Beach in Congress. Northeast of there, in District 39, Democratic Congressman Gil Cisneros looks unlikely to prevail against Republican former state Assemblywoman Young Kim, though that race has yet to be called.

California Republican Party Chairwoman Jessica Patterson said it does feel like a comeback for her party, but it's not one she’s taking for granted.


"We worked incredibly hard," she said. "Candidates matter, infrastructure matters. And we just thought that we could win some seats back on the congressional side. And so far, so good."

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But that’s not to say that Orange County is suddenly safe Republican territory again, Patterson added.

"It has turned into quite the battleground," she said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Rusty Hicks agreed. He said even though the demographics of Orange County are moving in Democrat’s direction, as the county becomes more Latino, less white and younger, the region is likely to remain a political battleground.

"The seats that we picked up in 2018 were hard, hard fought then, and they're hard fought now. And I truly believe that they will be hard fought in two years," he said.

Smoller, the political science professor, also predicted more flipping back and forth between the parties in the future.

Rouda for one, has already announced he will challenge Steel again in 2022.

"Obviously, any freshman who wins by less than one point, in the case of Michelle Steele ... they will have to be very careful," Smoller said, "And obviously, you know, everyone in Congress, but particularly the freshmen, are going to be looking over their shoulders."