Battle for House Control Runs Through California's Orange County
(Bloomberg) -- A fierce battle over a handful of congressional seats in the Southern California bastion of Republicanism could determine both the GOP’s future in the state and the outcome of the national battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Orange County, a region of 3.1 million people just south of Los Angeles, has long been the ideological center of California conservatism. But it’s been undergoing some of the same demographic shifts that have realigned the politics of other regions of the country.
The changes are reflected in the Republican and Democratic candidates competing in one of the most closely watched U.S. House races in the country: a 55-year-old immigrant who would be the first Korean-American woman to serve in Congress is running against a 47-year-old Latino lottery winner and U.S. Navy veteran.
Young Kim, an aide to retiring Republican Representative Ed Royce, faces Democrat Gil Cisneros, a retired naval officer who won $266 million in California’s Mega Millions lottery in 2010. They face off in the 39th congressional district, one of seven in the state now held by a Republican that both parties regard as vital to determining who wins control of the House in the November election.
“Any successful effort to retake the House runs through Orange County,” said Fred Smoller, an associate professor at Chapman University in the city of Orange. “For the first time, we have really competitive seats at the national level.”
For decades, Orange County has stood out as a solidly Republican stronghold in the blue state of California. Locals spoke of an “Orange Curtain” that separated the area from liberal Los Angeles, creating a conservative enclave that produced the likes of President Richard Nixon. The main Orange County airport is named after the staunchly Republican actor John Wayne.
In recent years, however, the county has been growing more diverse, as Asians and Latinos pour into its sun-baked subdivisions, with a corresponding shift in voting patterns. In 2016, Orange County voted for a Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, for the first time since the Great Depression. Since 1990 the share of the county’s population that is white has fallen to 41 percent, while Hispanics have grown to more than one-third and Asians have doubled to 20 percent.
In one of the hotly contested districts, Democrats hope to unseat 14-term Orange County Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, who faces off against Democratic businessman Harley Rouda. In another district that includes a slice of Orange County, Republican State Board of Equalization member Diane Harkey is running against Democratic investor Mike Levin for retiring GOP Congressman Darrell Issa’s seat.
The 39th district includes parts of nearby San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties and is now almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Democratic strategists hope Cisneros can reverse decades of GOP control amid a blue wave that carries the party to control of the House.
“We’re going to make history,” Cisneros told a group of Democratic activists at a July 2 event . “The Orange Curtain is coming down. We’re going to put up a blue one and it’s going to last a long time.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are counting on strong turnout of Asian voters in support of Kim. The district is 29 percent Asian, according to StatisticalAtlas.com, including large Chinese and Korean communities. Kim was born in South Korea and moved with her parents to Guam. She later received a business degree from the University of Southern California before shifting her focus to politics. The candidate, who often delivers stump speeches in Korean, worked in community relations for Royce, the 26-year retiring House veteran who heads the foreign affairs committee.
“One of the reasons he brought me aboard when he was still in the state Senate he probably foresaw the increase in our Asian communities and wanted some assistance in terms of getting him connected,” Kim said in an interview. “That’s exactly what we did.”
Republicans have identified a 12-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax, put into effect by the Democrat-controlled legislature in California this year, as an issue that may lift GOP congressional candidates. It has already cost one Democratic state senator, Josh Newman, his seat. In a recall election last month, Newman, who voted for the tax, was ousted by Ling Ling Chang, a Taiwan-born Republican. That state senate district overlaps with the 39th congressional district.
Both parties are taking the Orange County congressional races seriously. The National Republican Congressional Committee expanded its presence in the county this year, opening a 10,000-square-foot office in Irvine with a lease that runs through 2020. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opened its first West Coast office with eight senior people in a WeWork building in the same city.
In the primary alone, Democrats spent millions of dollars on ads, in English and Spanish, supporting Cisneros and attacking two Republicans in a crowded field of 17 candidates. Republicans, meanwhile, named Kim to their “Young Guns” program, candidates who will receive particular focus from the party nationally. A Democratic party poll last month gave Kim a 2 percentage point lead over Cisneros, within the survey’s margin of error.
Kim announced plans to run for Orange County supervisor last year, but switched to the congressional race after Royce announced his retirement in January.
She’s running a campaign focusing on her experience as a small business owner, her belief in legal immigration and on her record as a fiscal conservative in during the two years she served in the state assembly. She’s been endorsed by Royce, who won previous races handily. While President Donald Trump figures prominently in races in many Republican strongholds, there’s no mention of him on her Twitter.com or Facebook.com pages.
Cisneros, who worked as a supply officer for the U.S. Navy and later in operations at snack maker Frito-Lay, struck it rich eight years ago with his record-breaking Mega Millions prize. Since then he and his wife, Jacki, have started a foundation that provides college scholarships to underprivileged students. A Republican until 2008, Cisneros is running in his first race, in a district that is now one-third Hispanic.
He’s running as an unabashed liberal, despite the district’s conservative history, with his web site stating he’s pro-choice, for gun control, a defender of Obamacare, immigrants’ rights and for limits on campaign spending by special interests. He’s also sharply critical of Trump and said the presidential election was a wake-up call for him to become more active in politics.
Trump an Issue
“We let this madman be elected president of the United States,” Cisneros said at the campaign event earlier this month, a meeting of an 18-month old group called Progressive 39th. “This is a man who’s really gone out, there’s nothing humane about him. He’s taken children from their parents. I’m going to stand up to him.”
Cisneros took his family to see a border detention facility in Texas last month. His wife said she later heard their twin four-year-old boys chanting “A family, united, cannot be divided” in their back seat.
Cisneros is going “full frontal” on the Trump administration, said Michael Latner, an associate professor of political science at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Kim, he noted, didn’t take a stand against the administration’s policy of separating illegal immigrant children from their families until the day after Trump himself reversed his position.
“That’s exactly the sort of issue that you would think would work for a candidate like Kim, trying to distinguish herself from the far right in her party, but she has to carefully negotiate immigrant and women’s issues,” Latner said.
Kim said the issues most important to the district are access to education and the business climate.
“This district, they care more about, ‘Do I have a roof over my head?’ ” she said. “Is this where I can raise my children and provide good quality education?”
While separating illegal immigrant children from their parents troubled her, she said, she chose not to make a political issue out of it.
“If you ask me personally what happens at the border, it worries me, it concerns me,” she said. “I don’t want to see a crying child, but what’s the real story behind it?”
The shifting demographics of the 39th district were evident on the Fourth of July in Hacienda Heights, a community of 54,000 people 20 miles east of Los Angeles. The city’s annual parade was a mashup of local Americana with almost 100 groups marching, from Boy Scouts to classic car buffs. The city’s landmark Hsi Lai Buddhist temple was celebrating the year of the dog with a giant inflatable puppy on its float, while right behind them the Charros de la Puente, a group of traditional Mexican horsemen and women, twirled lassos and made their horses step to the beat of a mariachi band. Kim and Cisneros both rode in cars, waving to potential constituents.
Ernest Mistrick, a 64-year-old retired firefighter and 21-year resident of Hacienda Heights, said he voted for Kim in the primary and planned to so in the general election. He said he believed in a secure border and felt that liberal politicians were losing sense of what everyday Americans want. “We’re not trying to change this country,” Mistrick said. “We’re trying to preserve this country.”
Charles Ro, a 40-year-old engineer and lifelong Hacienda Heights resident, shares Kim’s Korean-American heritage but said he had doubts about voting for her. He supported a Democratic candidate who lost in the primary and hadn’t made up his mind yet about the general election.
“I’m looking for more leadership from her,” he said of Kim. “Taxes matter, but if we become focused on a single issue I think we’re going to be unpleasantly surprised in the long run.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.