Column: Watch your step, Democrats. O.C.'s purple shine hides a red underbelly

ORANGE, CALIF. -- MONDAY, AUGUST 5, 2019: Interns Lucas Uhm, left, and Andrea Madrid help register Orange County democratic voters at the Democratic Party of Orange County in Orange, Calif., on Aug. 5, 2019. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Interns Lucas Uhm, left, and Andrea Madrid help register Orange County Democratic voters at the Democratic Party of Orange County in Orange, Calif., in 2019. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
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In 2016, my beloved homeland of Orange County shocked political observers by favoring Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, the first time we went with a Democrat for president since FDR.

In 2018, O.C. voters made history yet again when we sent an all-Democratic congressional delegation to Capitol Hill. The following year, more people in O.C. were registered Democrats than Republicans — another first.

Local and national media outlets tripped over themselves to report on this political earthquake. Orange County — land of Richard Nixon and kooky conservatism, crucible of evangelical Christianity and culture war politics, the place Ronald Reagan repeatedly said was “where the good Republicans go before they die” — now sported a political color never before associated with our suburban sprawl of 3.2 million people:

Purple.

In an era where Trump was ascendant, seeing O.C. turn more liberal offered hope to Democrats nationwide. Because if Orange County — Orange County! — could reject the GOP, it could happen anywhere.

Read more: In Orange County, land of reinvention, even its conservative politics is changing

That narrative continued in 2020 as O.C. voters once again rejected Trump, even as Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel won congressional seats, and again two years later, even though Republicans won the county in all statewide elections. This year, political pundits are doubling down on the idea that Orange County's mauve march continues.

Publications from the Guardian to this one now regularly use the color to describe O.C.’s political hue. Longtime political consultant Mike Madrid will host a podcast this summer called “Red County, Blue County, Orange County” (I sat down for an episode), where he’ll argue that the future of American politics is here. The podcast is produced by UC Irvine's School of Social Ecology, which recently released a poll including the cheeky assertion that “Orange is the New Purple."

In the poll of 804 Orange County adults, President Biden holds a healthy lead among likely voters, most of whom are also going with the Democratic candidate in their congressional districts. The respondents were almost evenly split in their party identifications, with about a third Republican, a third Democrat and a third choosing another option.

UC Irvine's findings are already getting attention and exciting Democrats. Money will probably flow toward congressional races, because taking out Steel and Kim and keeping the seat currently occupied by Rep. Katie Porter can help flip the House.

But Orange County’s purple revolution reminds me of Jesus’ bitter comment in the Gospels that a prophet is honored everywhere except in his hometown, and among his own family.

While the rise of Democrats in O.C. has made all the headlines, the facts on the ground tell a different story. In terms of local political power, Republicans still rule — and it’s not even close.

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald P. Wagner
Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Donald P. Wagner, seen in 2020, recently won reelection with a resounding 63% of the vote. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

They hold every countywide elected position and all the seats on the Orange County Board of Education. While reform-minded sheriffs and district attorneys have won in major metro areas in recent years, O.C.’s top lawmen are proudly regressive Republicans — and voters love it. Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer won his 2022 reelection bid outright in the primary. Sheriff Don Barnes did even better that spring: there was no election because no one bothered to run against him.

There are more Republican Assembly members from O.C. than Democratic ones, and a majority of city councils in the county lean GOP. Democrats do hold all but one state Senate seat, but on the Board of Supervisors, their majority is only putative because Doug Chaffee, who represents northern Orange County, has the pesky habit of siding with his GOP colleagues a bit too much.

Political change is happening here, but to act as if a purple Orange County exists is dangerous for Democrats. It lulls them into believing their own hype — and local history offers a cautionary tale.

Read more: Op-Ed: Look to Orange County for how to turn California politics purple

In 1990, Republicans held a 22% voter registration advantage over Democrats, and the idea that Democrats could matter outside of Santa Ana and a handful of other cities was never considered, because it was so outlandish.

What did the GOP do with that advantage? They let it erode like the shoreline in San Clemente.

Pundits attribute this development to the exodus of white Republicans to other states, the emergence of the Latino vote and an increase in college-educated voters, who overwhelmingly sided with Biden over Trump in the UC Irvine poll.

No, it was hubris — that grand leveler of the mighty — that did the GOP in. The party alienated Latino voters for a generation by backing the anti-immigrant Prop. 187, and it let a once-vaunted farm system of candidates dry up. Leaders decided to stand athwart a liberalizing Orange County instead of adapt.

Democrats, on the other hand, capitalized on openings — the GOP war on LGBTQ+ and abortion rights, court-mandated district elections, ever-increasing cost-of-living — with two successive party chairs, Fran Sdao and Ada Briceño, who played to win instead of settling for perpetual second-banana status. The historic developments of 2016, 2018 and 2019 all came because of an underdog mentality that assumed nothing.

Two volunteers help a woman register to vote at the OC Fair in Costa Mesa.
Nick Hernandez, left, and Mary Carter, center, volunteers with the Laguna Beach Democratic Party, help Sydney Magno, of Riverside, register to vote as a Democrat at the Democratic Party of Orange County booth during the OC Fair in Costa Mesa in 2019. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

I hope Orange County Democrats remember this. Their victories have worked like chlorine in the whiny conservative swamp that was Orange County. But thinking we now wade in a purple wonderland proved disastrous in 2022. Besides the reelections of Spitzer and Barnes, the party endorsed a more progressive Democrat to take on Chaffee, only to see Chaffee win decisively.

Even worse was what happened in Huntington Beach. Leading up to the general election, four of the city's seven council members were Democrats — a once-unthinkable development in MAGA-by-the-Sea. All local liberals had to do was win one of those seats, and they could have created a blue beachside haven akin to HB’s rival for the Surf City nickname, Santa Cruz.

Instead, a bunch of Democrats ran and canceled each other out. Republicans, meanwhile, formed a slate and took over the City Council. This new majority has turned Huntington Beach into a poster child for Trumpism, and they’re not done: another slate of hard-right candidates is taking on the three remaining Democratic council members in November.

Democrats have already staged key victories this year, hinting that they've learned their lessons. They beat back a recall of Santa Ana councilmember Jessie Lopez and helped recall two conservative members of the Orange Unified school board. In both cases, they were going up against better-funded opposition and fought as if they lived in the ruby red O.C. of not that long ago.

Leave the thoughts of a purple reign to Prince, O.C. Dems — there's still a lot of work to do.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.