Why Orange County, a.k.a. Reagan Country, is 'ground zero' for the Democrats' midterm hopes

Orange County was once the bedrock for California conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But times have changed, and Democrats now believe if they can steal four seats from the Republicans here, they can win control of the House.

Democrats believe stealing 4 seats in the OC is key to winning control of the House

A supporter of Democratic congressional candidate Katie Porter points students to early voting booths at the University of California, Irvine in Orange County. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

As road trips go, it was one of a kind: a bus full of nuns snaked its way down a road in Irvine, Calif., on a crusade of sorts. But their mission was political, not religious. They were headed to one of the most pivotal midterm races in the country.

In order to swing the 24 seats needed to gain control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats are counting on flipping seven Republican-held districts in California that all voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Four of those seats are in historically conservative Orange County.

That's why the group Nuns on the Bus was making a stop in Irvine — leader Simone Campbell suspects whoever controls Orange County could end up controlling the House.

"Here in Orange County, you folks are ground zero," Campbell said from her seat at the front of the bus, as it rumbled down the road.

Supporters of Nuns on the Bus sign the sisters' vehicle during a stop in Irvine, where they were campaigning for the Democrats. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)


Nuns on the Bus is a Catholic advocacy group that embarks on month-long cross-country road trips to support progressive causes. The bus left Los Angeles in early October and will arrive at its final destination — President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in southern Florida — shortly before the midterms.

The group held a demonstration with about 30 supporters outside the Irvine office of Republican Rep. Mimi Walters, the two-term incumbent in the 45th district.

"We are here outside of Representative Walters's office to say, 'You've got to vote for the common good, not just for the good of your campaign donors or for the few in Orange County," Campbell said.

The Nuns on the Bus tour was created by Sister Simone Campbell, a lawyer, lobbyist and Sister of Social Service. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Orange County was once the bedrock for California conservatives like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the popular image of "the OC" as an affluent conservative community is shifting.

The Republicans Party's voter registration advantage over the Democrats has shrunk in half, in part because of the region's growing population of Latinos and Asians. Now, more than half of the county's population is non-white. Clinton's victory over Trump in Orange County two years ago was the first for a Democratic presidential candidate since the Great Depression.

"It's been super intense. None of us have ever seen this kind of attention on Orange County," said Norberto Santana Jr., publisher of the Voice of Orange County, a non-profit news agency.

Changing colour

Polls conducted in conjunction with the New York Times suggest the four Orange County seats in question are toss-ups, "literally within the margin of error," Santana Jr. said, which suggests the Republicans' "Orange curtain" may actually be fraying.

"The nature of the politics here is changing right before our very eyes," he said. "In a few more cycles, you could look at an Orange County that is much more purple than red or blue. And in some ways that mirrors, I think, a lot of what we're going to see about America."

For more than a decade, Republicans have been slowly losing ground across the country in well-educated, relatively affluent suburban areas like Orange County. Polls suggest voters with college degrees disapprove of the Trump administration by a margin of about 20 points.

Nationally, Republicans are still very strong in rural areas, but have been losing ground in white-collar suburbs such as Orange County. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

A sign of how much the 45th district has changed: the candidate challenging Republican incumbent Mimi Walters isn't even a moderate Democrat. Law professor Katie Porter was the most liberal candidate to vie for her party's nomination in the district.

"We're working really hard, talking to thousands of voters every day," Porter said, as she prepared to address a town hall for seniors in Mission Viejo. "But we definitely need to win this seat if we're going to make sure that we're able to have the seats that we need to stand up to Trump."

Jack Thorworth had never been politically active until these midterms. Now he says he's determined to 'kick one of the bad guys out.' (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Jack Thorworth, 77, could barely hear Porter through the fuzzy speakers. It didn't matter though; he was already sold on Porter. The rookie campaign volunteer had never gone door-knocking for a candidate before in his life, but says "if the country is going to hell, you have to stop whining about it and do something."

"I think all you can do is you pick an area that you're familiar with and do whatever you can to make sure that you put one of the good guys in and kick one of the bad guys out," he said. "It's that simple."

Walters's campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.

'Knife fight'

Thanks to fundraising by high-profile stars such as former president Barack Obama, who visited Orange County in September, Democrats have outspent Republicans in all four races.

"There's more money being spent in a small geographic area than any other place in the country, and it's a knife fight in each of these campaigns," said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party. "Orange County is a transitioning county. This is not the Orange County that elected Ronald Reagan."

Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke in March at the first meeting of The New Way, a movement of moderate Republicans trying to move the party closer to the centre of the political spectrum. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The late California governor and U.S. president famously said Orange County is where "all the good Republicans go to die." But for months leading up to the midterms, some Republicans have warned that if their candidates continue to embrace Trump, Orange County could become the party's graveyard.

In March, a coalition of moderate Republicans met at a Los Angeles-area gymnasium to try to change the party's course before the midterms.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio joined former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and several local politicians to discuss "The New Way," a movement that wants to move the party closer to the centre to be more competitive in changing areas like Orange County.

Republican political consultant Mike Madrid would not name Trump but says it’s important for the party to 'distance' itself from certain elements within the party. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"It's about distancing yourself from elements within your own party that are not productive to society, to the country, to our state," said Republican political consultant Mike Madrid, who was in attendance.

The crowd at the meeting cheered as moderate politician Rocky Chavez was introduced, months before he would face off against other Republicans for the nomination in the 49th district, which is north of San Diego and includes part of Orange County.

"The Republican Party got stuck in their ideology and you guys didn't," Schwarzenegger said, addressing Chavez and the other moderates. "The politics of division and anger and resentment can drive a strong base to the polls, but it is tearing our country apart at the seams, and nothing is getting done."

But months later, in the Republican primary, Chavez ended up losing to Diane Harkey, a candidate who supported — and was backed by — Trump.

Santana says even though Trump lost to Clinton in California by almost four million votes, the president is still considered a hero by the state's Republican base.

"It's both a shrinking base and a more politicized base," the publisher said. "[The candidates] are in some ways talking very much to Trump people because that's who's left in the Republican Party in California."

Former Republican activist Art Pedroza has joined the thousands of California conservatives with no registered party preference. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

That's why Art Pedroza turned away from the party he had supported for decades. The former Republican activist who helped the party with its Latino outreach is now a conservative blogger who happens to work in the same building as his Republican congresswoman, Mimi Walters.

Pedroza has joined the growing number of voters who have registered no party preference. This summer, the Republican Party hit a new low in California: its members are now outnumbered by Independents.

"So they have already become a third party in California," Pedroza said.

He believes that by doubling down on Trump in the midterms, Orange County's Republicans risk losing more than just this election cycle.

"If the Democrats can pick up these seats in Orange County, they're not going to let go … So the time for moderation might be gone already for the Republican Party."

About the Author

Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.