Orange County, California, has long been America’s conservative citadel. Conservativism’s idol, Ronald Reagan, called the OC the place where “good Republicans go before they die.” But Donald Trump has changed all that.
Anger towards the President means that Orange County’s Republican congressional candidates are feeling the heat like never before. Once safe seats can no longer be counted upon. And, with only days to go before the midterms, the races in all of them are too close to call.
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The possibility of fresh Democratic upsets was, in fact, foreshadowed in the 2016 election results for Orange County. Despite the Republicans’ demographic and registrational advantages, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump here by 51 to 42 per cent – the first time a Democrat had carried the county since 1936. Those results, and the dynamics of this year’s election, suggest Republicans decided to vote for her because she was not Donald Trump.
To be sure, Orange County Republicans still favour traditional conservative policies: a strong national defence, free and open trade, business-friendly tax policies, modest environmental protection and practical immigration reform. But Trump’s version of Republicanism looks quite different. His embrace of Russian president Vladimir Putin, support for tariffs and protectionist trade policies, hard-line stance on almost all forms of immigration, and reversal of some environmental protection policies, have created a disconnect between his positions and those values long held by Republican voters.
Take District 45, where the incumbent, Mimi Walters, won an easy victory against her Democrat opponent in 2016 – 59 to 41 per cent. Her current campaign is in trouble and she is trailing her Democratic challenger by 7 percentage points. Walters has avoided making references to Trump on the campaign trail, but is happy to echo him on the hot-button issue of immigration – echoing his call to “build a wall” to separate the US from Mexico. This is possibly not a wise move in a seat where now over 40% of the residents are Asian or Hispanic.
In contrast, her Democratic opponent, Katie Porter, has chosen to mirror the language of bygone Republicans, stressing the need for “comprehensive immigration reform” and a “pathway to citizenship” for those who are already here.
Similarly, in District 49, Republican Diane Harkey is struggling to connect with voters. Like Walters, Harkey has avoided overt references to President Trump in her campaign materials, but also has similarly pledged support for policies that align with him. Specifically, she has prioritised immigration and border security, as well as reduced taxes, and she echoes Trump’s strong support for Israel. The polls show Harkey well behind.
It is interesting that Walters and Harkey have both chosen to promote policies popular with Trump’s national base and to downplay, or ignore altogether, those historically popular conservative policies designed to allow people to prosper.
One long-time Orange County resident, Vicky B told me: “The current Republican mentality is that ‘individual success for me’ must always come at the expense of others – especially those who are more disadvantaged and not as well as positioned for success.” She recently changed her party registration from Republican to Democrat and gave money to support Walters’ Democratic opponent.
Not all OC Republican candidates, however, are lining up behind the priorities of the Trump Administration. Young Kim, a businesswoman who served previously in the state legislature, studiously avoids any reference to President Trump, for good or for ill. Instead, she is emphasising a number of issues that have resonated with Trump critics, including her commitment to fixing America’s immigrant system – she legally emigrated as a child from South Korea – and her desire to expand leadership opportunities for women and other underrepresented groups.
Moreover, instead of toeing the new party line, she has promoted traditional conservative positions such as relief from burdensome taxes and regulations, support for first-responders and veterans, and local control over schools. Early polls showed her ahead of her Democratic opponent by 10%; 10 days before the election, polls showed a virtual tie.
Her drop in poll ratings, which occurred after the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, suggests that OC Republican candidates could be experiencing fallout from the series of moral controversies that have surrounded the President.
These sensitivities to Trump’s moral failings could be due, in part, to the fact that Orange County is home to nearly 30 evangelical megachurches. Today, nearly 350,000 OC residents attend an evangelical Protestant church and another 76,500 attend a church aligning with a mainline Protestant denomination.
These numbers often favour Republican candidates, since their policies chime with many of the traditional policies favoured by white evangelicals, such as pro-life (anti-abortion) initiatives. However, President Trump has an uneasy relationship with them – enjoying broad support because of his commitment to appointing conservative US Supreme Court justices but also drawing criticism from voters frustrated with his immoral personal behaviour. It is quite possible that this might prompt Republican voters to abandon their party allegiances, at least temporarily, in order to send a message that certain words, behaviours and policies are not to be tolerated.
Matt N., an evangelical Christian in District 48, says that he changed his voter registration in 2016 because he “could no longer stomach the rhetoric of Donald Trump and align myself with him or the Republican party that so willingly bought into his policies”.
He is still angry about the Trump-directed Republican party policies, “specifically, Trump’s policies on immigration, deportation and DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]; his clear lack of care for the environment and global warming; his new tax policies that clearly benefit the wealthy; his stance on healthcare; the way he talks about women and minorities; and his refusal to withdraw Kavanaugh’s nomination.”
Matt, like many of his neighbours, is now voting Democrat.
In American politics, much can happen in the days leading up to an election. But if Orange County, which has been electing Republicans since before the Second World War, this year sends Democrats to Congress, we can expect even more dramatic shifts to come.