“Orange County,” President Ronald Reagan famously said, “is where all the good Republicans go to die.”
Surely, 2018’s midterm election is not what the Gipper had in mind.
For when the ballots were fully counted last week, Democrats held control of all seven House districts touching the once-deep-red county, having flipped four Republican-held House seats located within the historical heart of America’s conservative movement.
As Democrats captured control of the House on the strength of majorities among white suburban voters, especially women, throughout California and across the nation, state GOP leaders and conservative pundits suggested that a new, center-right right party should replace the vanquished Republican brand in California.
“The California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time,” Kristin Olsen, a former Assembly Republican Minority Leader wrote in an op-ed for CALmatters. “The Grand Old Party is dead — partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics.”
O.C. RIP: The four Democrats who seized Republican seats lying in part or wholly inside Orange County — Gil Cisneros, Mike Levin, Katie Porter, and Harley Rouda — were part of a far-flung, two-year campaign for the House.
From Fullerton and Irvine to Huntington Beach and San Clemente, the O.C.’s suburbs were ground zero for that effort, which nationally appears to have yielded 40 seats.
While Democratic domination of the iconic stronghold of right-wing politics may seem astonishing, it also recalls the famous literary description of the two ways to go bankrupt — “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Latino journalist Gustavo Arellano, in a mock “Obituary for old Orange County,” wrote of how it was transformed since the 1990s by the decline of the defense industry, wealth disparity, and, most of all, demographic shifts shaped by immigration:
Long famous for its wealth, whiteness and conservative values, Orange County is survived by its offspring, who include a population that is about 60% people of color, some of the most crowded and poor neighborhoods in the United States and a Republican Party that’s on the ropes…
The death shocked everyone who hadn’t bothered to pay attention for decades…but as the years went on, the Orange County of old gradually succumbed to a new generation of working-class unions, multicultural youngsters and middle-class voters who just didn’t care about demonizing the downtrodden, except for the homeless.
MEMORY LANE: By any measure, however, the Republican wipeout in Orange County is historic.
Created by secession from L.A. County in 1889, a move led by a local legislator and Ku Klux Klan enthusiast, it was not only Reagan’s base but also Richard Nixon’s, not to mention the John Birch Society. Starting in 1940, it voted for the GOP presidential ticket in 19 consecutive elections.
“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of Orange County in the modern growth of conservatism,” wrote columnist John Fund, of the right-wing National Review.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton broke the string of Democratic presidential losses that began with Franklin Roosevelt, a harbinger of what followed this year; punctuating his party’s congressional triumph, Gavin Newsom leads Republican John Cox in Orange County and is poised to become the first Democratic candidate for governor in memory to win there.
WHAT NEXT: California Republicans now face the challenge of rebuilding.
With 24 percent, the GOP is the state’s third-largest registered voter faction, after Democrats and No Party Preference independents — nearly as numerically close to the 2.6 percent American Independents as to the 43.5 percent Dems.
Olson, the former legislative leader, has been among prominent Republicans calling for a “New Way” party-building project, beginning with a rejection of Trumpism.
“Republican principles used to be about helping other people,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, tragically, that is not the Republican Party promoted by President Donald Trump and his brand of national politics today. We have lost our way, and it’s killing any opportunity for political balance and thoughtful debate in California.”