The gasps of amazement were audible nationwide: Orange County, California, known as the heart of “Reagan Country,” a place that perpetuates hard-core, right-wing beliefs from behind the orange curtain, had turned blue in the midterm congressional elections.
All seven of the congressional districts that are wholly or partly within the county had gone to Democrats, and it seemed that every news organization wanted to officially announce this dramatic switch to liberalism. It was the end of an era, a couple of pundits claimed.
I’ve lived in Orange County for three and a half decades, and watched the place change both politically and demographically. As the establishment East Coast media regularly rediscovers, the county is no longer overwhelmingly white. It hasn’t been for decades, but never mind. A couple of congressional districts have been reliably Democratic for decades, in large part because of that racial and ethnic diversification.
There are other factors in the county’s leftward shift. More adults are college-educated and the county has the lowest high school dropout rate in the state. The tech sector is growing. Tech employees and highly educated people tend to be politically liberal.
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The county is certainly turning fuchsia-tending-toward-purple. It’s become more moderate. But true blue? Rumors of the GOP’s death in the Orange County are exaggerated, and this has implications not just for the county’s political future, but for the nation’s.
Peer beneath the surface and you’ll see that in two of the four districts that flipped blue, Orange County voters stuck with the GOP candidates. Those are districts that cross county boundaries, and the votes in those other counties were enough to overcome Orange County’s Republicanism.
Proposition 6, the state measure to overturn the recent gas tax, failed statewide, meaning the tax remains in place. But by an almost equally strong margin, Orange County voted for the proposition and the elimination of the tax. And even though local races are nominally non-partisan, Republicans did well with city council and school board seats in the county.
Still, a blue wave did hit the county, and its arrival could have been predicted if Republicans had been paying closer attention two years ago. That’s when Orange County voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, the first time since the Depression that it supported a Democrat. The pivotal issue, of course, was Trump, whose dishonest, divisive and racially hateful rhetoric played poorly in a more moderate and educated county. Had the Republican candidate been, say, a reincarnation of Reagan, the outcome probably would have been quite different.
Democrats pounced on the indicators that two Republican strongholds – the 48th Congressional District along the coastline, and the 45th which includes highly educated, tech-oriented Irvine – were potentially vulnerable targets.
The victories in these two districts were particularly striking. In the 48th district, Democrat Harley Rouda – notably a former Republican – ousted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who had become infamous for not getting much done and for his ties to Russia.
“My constituents couldn’t care less about this,” Rohrabacher told the New York Times a year ago. “They are not concerned about Russia.”
His dismissive and out-of-touch attitude – which he also employed to deny huge swaths of climate science – ended up costing him his long-held seat. “Dana’s toast! In Orange Coast!” goes a clever choral rewording of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus that swaps “Harley Rouda” in for the word hallelujah and sings of Rohrabacher’s long congressional career, “And he’s been there forever and ever.”
Walters had been in federal office for only a few years; she won re-election handily in 2016 but apparently failed to recognize that Trump didn’t. By aligning herself with the Trump agenda at almost every turn, and voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, she alienated and energized more moderate and liberal voters back home.
Orange County might still be Reagan Country – tax-averse, a fan of smaller government except when voters see an immediate and personal advantage, such as the ability to buy health insurance – but it is not Trump Country.
That’s an important lesson for Republican members of Congress who might find that if Trump continues to offend the electorate, their jobs could be in jeopardy come 2020. In many races that Republicans won during the midterms within their traditional territories, the votes were close.
But Democrats also should take heed. The flipping of districts in Orange County was more about dislike of Trump than about a new love of progressivism. Voters leaning Democrat liked their candidates but talked much more about the need to check Trump’s power and do it fast. If Democrats see the vote as a sign that moderates are suddenly embracing a huge swing to the left, they could become the group that voters want to check in a couple of years.
As both the Democratic and Republican parties have moved farther from the center, they have increasingly left moderates – who still make up about 35 percent of the country – without a party to call home. What moderates do still have is enough votes to put the brakes on events that they see as having gone wildly wrong. That’s what happened in Orange County last month, and both parties would be wise to pay attention to the message.