Yesterday Democrat Gil Cisneros finally took the lead over Republican Young Kim to become the next representative from California’s 39th district. The district, which encompasses Yorba Linda – home of the Nixon Library – had been held by retiring Republican Ed Royce since 2013 and had been seen as a potential target since earlier this year.
Cisneros, a Mega Millions winner who used his earnings to become a philanthropist, won the nomination last spring after a stiff primary challenge from Andy Thorburn, who claimed he’d received a threatening voicemail from him. Fortunately, Cisneros disproved the accusation and handily beat Thorburn in the primary by more than 15,000 votes. If his current lead holds, he will be the final domino in the Democratic congressional takeover of Orange County.
A Landmark Change in California Politics
Orange County, the Southern California district encompassing California’s 39th, 45th, 46th, 47th, 48th, and 49th districts, has historically been one of the strongest bastions of conservatism in the country. It was one of the epicenters of the John Birch Society, the fringe coalition that moved the Republican Party further and further rightwards following the 1964 nomination of Barry Goldwater for President. An influx of Vietnamese immigrants with anti-communist beliefs helped keep the district conservative in the years following the Vietnam War and through the Reagan era.
But in the last decade, Orange County has become a majority-minority county. A fifth of its residents are Latino, a third are Asian-American, and it is home to several large state universities, including UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. The county’s white population has dipped from 51 to 41%. In 2016, it voted for Hillary Clinton by 8 % – the first time it had gone Democratic since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide. This made the area one of 2018’s top priorities for Democrats.
Incumbent Democrats Lou Correa and Alan Lowenthall already represented the 46th and 47th districts and were safe locks for re-election, but the other four districts were red. However, Ed Royce and CA-49 Republican Darrell Issa announced their retirement early this year; Mimi Walters of CA-45 and Dana Rohrabacher of CA-48 ran for re-election but faced steep obstacles. Even Rohrabacher, who had never been seriously challenged in his district, said in September 2017 that “this race would be the toughest.”
How the Republicans Collapsed
The changing demographics played a huge role in flipping Orange County, as well as a highly energized grassroots (full disclosure: I volunteered there last month) consisting of both longtime residents and new transplants who wanted new representation. New organizations that have risen since the 2016 election, like Crooked Media and SwingLeft, also played a role in registering voters and mobilizing the base.
But the major factor that sunk Republicans in the O.C. was Donald Trump, who, as much as the Democratic Party, made the election a referendum on his presidency: “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket,” he told rally attendees this fall.
Close ties to Trump hurt Mimi Walters in her race for re-election. Earlier this year, she told Politico that there was no way her seat was up for grabs. She didn’t realize how her short tenure in Congress, refusal to hold town hall meetings and record of voting with the president 99% of the time made her such a target. Walters tried to attack Porter as being too far left, tying her to her mentor, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, but to no avail. Although vote-counting was slow, Porter officially declared victory yesterday.
In the case of Dana Rohrabacher, the Russia scandal was front-and-center. Rohrabacher already had a lot going against him, but it was his close ties to the Kremlin that were the focus of businessman Harley Rouda’s attacks. Ironically, Rohrabacher had begun his career as a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, who not only brought the Cold War to an end but joked that Orange County was “where the good Republicans go to die.” Rohrabacher may not be dead, but Rouda killed his career, defeating him by five points.
As for San Diego’s CA-49, what was expected to be a bumpy primary between Democrat Mike Levin and Republican Rocky Chavez ended up becoming a non-starter, as Chavez ended up in sixth place, leaving Levin to face Diane Harkey in the fall. Levin took advantage of San Diego’s changing demographics to give himself a strong advantage over Harkey. By election night, even Congressman Issa himself admitted that Levin had the district locked up. He won by seven points in a district his Republican predecessor held on to by less than one percentage point in 2016.
Orange County has been responsible for some of California’s most conservative policies, from Howard Jarvis’s 1970s tax cuts that crippled funding for education and social services, to the passage of 2008’s Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in the state. The results in this election make such policies unlikely in the future and speak to California’s status as a leader for the Resistance and a role model for the rest of the nation.