OC ahead of Election Day: Exhaustion, no enthusiasm for Biden, and lots of car caravans

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Orange County is historically red, but it’s been skewing more blue in recent years. On the eve of Election Day, LA Times columnist Gustavo Arellano tells KCRW what to expect in Orange County.  

KCRW: In early October, you talked about the history of election integrity in the OC. Heading into Election Day, what are you seeing? 

Gustavo Arellano: “I predict that it’s going to be as smooth as possible, given the person who runs it is Neal Kelley. Now Neal Kelley has been the registrar of voters now since 2006.

… Orange County is the fifth largest jurisdiction for voting in the United States. And so what Kelley has done, he did it in the primary, was set up these voting centers. … So set up the voting centers, opened up early voting on Friday. And so you're probably going to see a record turnout.”

What's voter turnout been like? You can vote at any Orange County voting center. It doesn't matter where you live. The same is true for LA County. 

“Just anecdotally, I've seen a lot of people turn into their votes by mail because of coronavirus. You haven't seen the humongous lines that you've seen all across the United States. … The big voting center it seems is the Honda Center, where the Anaheim Ducks play. And people are coming in, and people are coming out. So people have had the chance to vote. They haven't done it so far. So I'm thinking a lot of it's going to be vote by mail.

And of course early on, the registrar voters, Neal Kelley, is saying that it's exceeding 2016 vote by mail turnout by like, gosh, 100%. But just like everywhere in the United States, it's exponential how much people are voting by mail this time around.”

What are you paying attention to in congressional races in Orange County?

“The big story is can the Democratic party keep all the congressional seats? ...The two main ones is [sic] going to be Michelle Steel versus Harley Rouda around Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. And then in North Orange County and also parts of San Bernardino and LA County, Gil Cisneros the incumbent versus Young Kim, who he beat last time around.

But if the Democratic party can hold those seats, you're going to see history happen again. And of course if Orange County is going to vote for Biden over Trump, that's going to be two years in a row that Orange County, once a rock ribbed citadel of Republican politics in the United States, has gone for the Democrats. That will be, I think, the death knell of the Republican Party in Orange County.”

Two years ago, the entire OC delegation went blue. How have Republicans adapted by trying to win back some seats?

“All you've seen is just, gosh, way too many commercials, way too many flyers that get sent to my P.O. box. I don't care about these races. Come on. I'm not even in some of these districts, for crying out loud. So they could have had a chance to take them out if it wasn't for coronavirus. 

And especially in Michelle Steel's case, people who care about coronavirus, which is most of the people in Orange County, they have been absolutely horrified by her record on the case. With Young Kim, she really hasn't done much on coronavirus because she's not an elected official. But she would have had a fighting chance if it wasn't for coronavirus, and if it wasn’t of course for President Trump. 

Young Kim has actually tried to distance herself a little bit from Trump. Michelle Steel hasn't. So they're going to live and die by both coronavirus and Trump, and how much Orange County cares about each.”

As far as ads and phone banking, have they adapted in the two years since the blue wave?

“They absolutely have. At the LA Times, I did a column about Randall Avila, who's the executive director of the Orange County Republican Party, a Mexican American from Monterey Park. And he's been very adamant of trying to do phone banking, trying to do specific digital targets that they didn't do in 2018. And of course, they set up those ballot boxes … where they could get votes from Republicans or anyone who leaves them there. 

What they say burned them in 2018 was the Democratic Party just going around and … [doing] ballot harvesting, which is legal by California law. But that term is seen as something derogatory, even though it's absolutely legal. … The Republican Party … is trying to get as many votes as possible from people, literally go onto doorsteps, picking them up, having it signed. … So let's see if they're going to be able to do it.”

Is there anything different about this run at the voting centers?

“Just exhaustion. I mean, exhaustion really on the presidential part. Obviously, Trump supporters are going to be more enthusiastic. I have not seen any enthusiasm for Biden in Orange County at all. Remember, Orange County actually went for Bernie Sanders in the primary. So that said, people just want it over. If anything, most of the time, sadly, I’m at my wife’s store in Santa Ana, so what I am seeing is a lot of enthusiasm for local races. A lot of car caravans, like the car caravans for Trump, you're seeing car caravans for like every single mayoral candidate. 

… So at the very least, you're seeing an engaged electorate, which cannot be said most of the time, even during presidential elections in Orange County. So I think that's a positive step for democracy. But let's see what happens after Election Day and how long the counting is going to go.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Jenna Kagel