The Orange County Republican Party does something much better than the local Democratic Party; the GOP establishes a farm team of future state and federal candidates by getting them elected to city councils, school boards, and other local government offices.
This has occurred for decades. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr detailed the emergence of the party’s strong foundation in the county dating back to the 1960s in her book Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2001). McGirr explained the efforts of Birchers, religious fundamentalists, and xenophobic nationalists giving rise to a GOP stronghold in OC, and the effects are still apparent throughout the county.
Even though the county has a more balanced breakdown of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, Republicans still prevail widely at the voting booth. No Democrats sit on the county’s inept Board of Supervisors, and the county’s 34 city councils and numerous school boards are still Republican dominated. Despite close numbers in voter registration, OC Democrats are highly underrepresented in elected office.
One can attribute much of this to poor chairpersonship of the OC Democratic Party in years past. Luckily for the party, Dems have an effective, charismatic chair in Fran Sdao, so this should change with each election cycle.
But we have a problem as we approach this year’s congressional primary and general elections: there are too many Democrats running in OC’s various congressional races.
Take Orange County’s 39th, 45th, 48th, and 49th districts. All traditionally vote Republican, yet all favored Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race. Some, if not all, are in play as Democrats attempt to regain the House this year. In the past, relatively weak Democratic candidates would run against heavily-favored Republican incumbents, but Donald Trump’s election and shifting voting trends have inspired a new cadre of capable candidates, including Mike Levin, Katie Porter, Dave Min, and many more. I believe this is the most talented group of progressives Orange County has ever seen in an election cycle, but these candidates are hurting each other because there are too many running against each other.
This state’s new top-two primary system presents a unique challenge. Primaries are low-turnout elections, and a higher percentage of OC Republicans vote in them than Democrats. In the races for open seats in the 39th and 49th, there are more Democratic challengers than Republican challengers, meaning the numerous Democratic candidates can split the vote, ensuring that two Republicans advance to the general. This occurred in 2012, when two Republicans advanced to the general in the 31st, a district with a 5% Democratic registration advantage.
The LA Times’ Christine Mai-Duc wrote about the Democrats’ conundrum in the 39th and 49th. Both seats are critical for flipping the House, yet there is a chance that both may advance two Republicans to the general.
The party needs to resolve this situation. Democratic officials need to work with the campaigns and convince high-potential candidates with little funding and minimal support to drop out of these congressional races. Simultaneously, the party needs to implement a full-court press to help these candidates get elected to local government offices. Those with no shot at Congress should serve on school boards, city councils, and water district boards. These boards have an important and direct impact on citizens’ lives. The talent base is there, but everyone is running for Congress.
In short, the Orange County Democratic Party needs to establish a countywide farm team for the first time in its modern history. The local GOP is often more disciplined and organized than the Dems, and disciplined and organized campaigns win elections.
With three months to go before the primary, this is a mess.