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A 'Toss-Up' Congressional Race in Once Reliably Republican Orange County Will Help Determine Control of Congress

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A dyptych of a man and woman posing outside - at right - and a women and young boy playing a Jenga game.on the street
Jay Chen (far left), the Democratic congressional candidate vying to represent the 45th District in Orange County, poses with local resident Velvet Victorian during a National Night Out event in Garden Grove on Aug. 2, 2022. Rep. Michelle Steel (far right), the Republican incumbent, plays a game of Jenga at a similar event held the same evening in nearby Westminster. (Marisa Lagos/KQED)

On a hot early August evening, at a National Night Out event hosted by the small Orange County city of Garden Grove, Democratic congressional candidate Jay Chen introduces himself to voters at the police station.

Chen, who is still relatively unknown here, often leads with his biography.

“I'm a veteran as well as a community college trustee,” the 44-year-old Harvard graduate and former Navy intelligence officer tells a group of voters. “I have a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old, and we're going to make sure that our kids are safe in school and put an end to this gun violence."

About 15 minutes away, in a Target parking lot in the city of Westminster, Chen's Republican opponent, incumbent Rep. Michelle Steel, is similarly making the rounds, and catching up with longtime friends and constituents.

“This is really good because I can see a lot of people. I thank all the police officers, firefighters,” said Steel, 67. “I used to be a fire commissioner in Los Angeles, so I know how it goes.”

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Orange County, long a reliable stronghold for Republicans, has become a battleground for congressional races in recent elections, and this year is no exception. The race here, for District 45, is one of three in this county alone, and among the 10 statewide, that the Cook Political Report has listed as "competitive."

That means voters here will now help determine the political balance of a closely divided Congress.

The 45th District is “anyone's election to win or lose,” said Jodi Balma, a Fullerton College political science professor. “It’s a toss-up race.”

Steel won her seat in 2020, defeating first-term Democratic Rep. Harley Rouda, when Republicans had gained a marked registration advantage in the district. But redistricting has completely reshaped the area Steel is now running to represent.

No longer dominated by the more conservative, wealthy coastal cities, the new 45th District includes more middle- and working-class areas — it stretches as far east as Brea and includes Cerritos in Los Angeles County. And Democrats now have a 5-point registration advantage here.

Additionally, it's a notably diverse district — nearly 37% of residents are Asian American, 36% are white and 23% are Latino. And it includes large immigrant and refugee communities from Vietnam, the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.

By contrast, Steel’s old district was 70% white.

“I think [Steel] reflects the old district,” said Balma, who has tracked OC politics for more than two decades. “However, the district has fundamentally shifted so that very few people who will be voting in November have had Michelle Steel as an incumbent congresswoman.”

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Still, despite the registration numbers, Balma said, Chen has a formidable challenge ahead of him, leading up to November.

Even in a new district, Steel is well known in Orange County — she served on the county’s Board of Supervisors and, along with her husband, has been active in local GOP politics for decades.

But she’s also a staunch conservative in an increasingly purple district. Just this summer she voted against same-sex marriage and contraception access measures, and she co-sponsored a bill that would ban all abortions at the federal level.

Chen, on the other hand, is campaigning on protecting abortion rights, gun control and access to health care.

"We have to make sure that we protect health care, your rights. When you want to start a family, that's your decision,” he said.

Balma said those policy differences could help Chen, but there’s no guarantee.

“It will depend on how the campaigns frame the question. And so if Michelle Steel can frame the question that she is a moderating vote against a Biden/AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] agenda, she has an advantage,” she said.

But, Balma added, Chen would be wise to hold Steel accountable for her votes against contraception and same-sex marriage, both of which she called “extreme positions in Orange County.”

On the campaign trail, Steel says she aims to highlight her votes against tax increases and government spending, and her support for law enforcement and harsher criminal penalties. A large swath of voters, she says — not just Republicans — are angry this year, about inflation, gas prices and crime.

“Usually NPP [no party preference] people are kind of quiet about who they're going to vote [for],” she said. “Now it's totally different. They’re saying, ‘You know what? I need somebody who can take care of the economy, crime and other stuff.’”

But Chen says that, unlike some Democrats, he’s not trying to shy away from those pocketbook issues, but instead is seeking to reframe them and focus on the real culprits.

“I want to make sure that we bring down costs. Talk more inflation,” he said. “You know, there's a lot of price-gouging going on right now. We've got Chevron and Exxon. They made $30 billion in profits in the last quarter. That's much more than they ever made before, while we're paying record-high prices at the pump.”

Barbara Eames, who was volunteering at the National Night Out event in Westminster, where she’s lived for more than 50 years, told Steel that she and others in her church congregation were praying for more members of Congress like her.

“We need more like her because we have far too many that are destroying our country right now,” Eames said. “And we’re praying for certain things — one of them is, we are highly concerned about the children. And critical race theory. And the homosexual agenda in the schools — all of that.”

But in Garden Grove, Diana Tran was receptive to Chen’s message on efforts to curb gun violence.

“I homeschool my kids right now and we started homeschooling because of the pandemic. But then, like, hearing about gun violence, hearing what’s going on in the community — it’s really, really hard to integrate ourselves back into society,” she told Chen at the police station event.

One thing both candidates like talking about: their own immigrant family stories. Steel was born in South Korea and grew up in Japan; Chen’s parents are Taiwanese and moved to the Midwest before Chen was born.

Both are hoping those backgrounds will help them connect with voters in a district that’s one-third Asian, including one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the state. But Balma said each candidate likely appeals to different segments of the diverse Asian American community here.

“It's not a monolith. And the Asian American voters are not even a monolith within the different ethnicities. Not all Vietnamese Americans vote the same way. Not all Koreans feel the same way,” she said. “[Chen and Steel] are generationally different. Their immigration stories are generationally different.”

Balma also noted that younger Vietnamese voters tend to skew Democratic, while their parents and grandparents still identify with the GOP — in some cases, because of the party’s historic anti-communist stance, an issue that for decades has loomed large over politics in the county.

Among the candidates’ few overlapping positions, for instance, is their mutual support for Taiwanese independence and their outspoken opposition to China’s leadership.

But Balma wonders whether the national Republican Party’s recent shift even further to the right — including its embrace of autocratic world leaders like Hungarian President Viktor Orbán — could hurt conservative candidates in Orange County.

“I mean, do Vietnamese voters still believe that the Republicans are against communism when you see them, you know, inviting and cozying up to dictators and fascists?” she said. “I don't know how that plays."

And like most close elections, Balma added, this one will come down to who’s paying attention — and actually turns out to vote.

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An earlier version of this story misidentified Jodi Balma's employer . She works at Fullerton College. 

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