Will Orange County go from Red to Blue?

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Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.

On a recent evening, about two dozen friends and neighbors gathered at a house party in Irvine. They had come to meet Katie Porter, a Democrat who’s running for Congress in Orange County.

A professor of law at U.C. Irvine and an expert on consumer protection, Porter is one of seven Democrats trying to unseat Republican incumbent Mimi Walters in California’s 45th Congressional District, which includes such communities as Irvine, Mission Viejo and Laguna Niguel.

Democratic congressional candiate Katie Porter speaks before a small gathering of voters at a house party in Irvine. She’s one of many Democrats running in Republican districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Photo: Saul Gonzalez

Porter’s big message to those who listened to her as they sipped wine and nibbled on cheese?Democrats can win the 45th Congressional District and Orange County districts long dominated by Republican incumbents. 

“This is going to be one of the most competitive races in the country,” Porter told the room. “We know Republicans are going to pour millions of dollars into this seat. But this is our year. It’s our year to turn Orange County blue.”

Not so long ago the goal of turning this region blue would have seemed far-fetched.  After all, the O.C. was once an unassailable Republican bastion. It catapulted native son Richard Nixon to national political prominence. It was the county with the highest percentage of GOP voters in the state.

Addressing a campaign rally there in 1988, President Ronald Reagan said something that caused thunderous applause: “You are living proof of something I have said over and over again: Orange County is where good Republicans go before they die.”

Reagan got more than double the vote in Orange County than his Democratic opponents when he was elected and re-elected to the presidency.

President Reagan and Nancy Reagan on the campaign trail with Governor George Deukmejian and Senator Pete Wilson at Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley, California. 9/3/84. Photo: White House/ Reagan Presidential LibraryPhoto:

“You couldn’t get elected in Orange County if you weren’t in lock-step with absolute conservative principles,” said Jimmy Camp, a long-time Republican political consultant in Orange County and the former director operations for the California GOP.

But camp acknowledged that the GOP grip on Orange County is fading as the region gets more diverse and voters views get more nuanced.

“A lot of it’s because of sort of changing demographics,” said Camp. “But it’s also been changing attitudes, which we really saw in this last election.”

In 2016, Republican Donald Trump won the White House, but he lost Orange County to Hillary Clinton by 39,000 votes. Before Clinton, the last presidential candidate to win in Orange County was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.

And it was Trump’s election that prompted a stampede of Democrats, including Katie Porter, to run for Congress and try to flip Republican districts.

“I did spent the first day sad,” said Porter, “I’ll be honest with you. And then the day after, I decided I wanted to run.”  

Although the 45th still trends Republican, Porter thinks Democrats have a shot to win here.

“We live in a really diverse area,” Porter said during an interview at her temporary campaign office in Irvine. “We live in an area where science and technology is increasingly providing the jobs. And a lot of us moved here because of public education. And we’re seeing those things under attack.”

Porter and other Democratic candidates running for office in Orange County even hope some Republican voters are so fed up with Donald Trump, they’ll consider leaving the GOP for good.

Republican political operative Jimmy Camp knows something about that. When Trump was nominated as his party’s presidential candidate, Camp became an independent.

“It was emotional and gut wrenching for me to do it, ” said Camp  at his home filled with Republican political memorabilia. “But I couldn’t sit there as he accepted the nomination. I couldn’t justify it to my friends, to my family, to my son that I’m a Republican.”

But Democrats running in Orange County say discomfort, even disgust with Donald Trump, will only take them so far. Republican incumbents are well-entrenched and financed.

In the 45th Congressional District, Rep. Mimi Walters, who declined requests for an interview, has over a $1.5 million in her campaign war chest. And she’s expected to raise much more in the weeks and months ahead.

That’s why when talking to voters, Democratic challenger Katie Porter talks about the need for organization and dollars.

“We’re going to have to use every tool,” said Porter. We’re going to have to have advertisements on radio, on TV. We’re going to have robo-calls. And all of that takes money.”

But Jimmy Camp said there’s something more valuable than money shaping Orange County’s political landscape this election year: enthusiasm. He said Democrats have it and Republicans don’t, at least not yet.

“It’s not like, ‘Hey, I’m a Republican and I’m super-hyped on Donald Trump, so I’m going to go vote in a midterm,’ said Camp. “As opposed to, ‘I’m a progressive 23-year-old female, and I’m pissed off and angry and I’ve never voted in my life. But I’m going to. You know, you have to tie me up to keep me away from the polls.’ That’s what I’m seeing.”

Statewide, Democrats are targeting all Republican congressional districts that voted for Hillary Clinton. They’re calling them the “California Seven.”

Photo: Congressman Richard Nixon, Yorba Linda, circa April 1950 Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.