Newport Beach voters on their reluctant Trump support: 'I plugged my nose and voted for him'

Bathed in the glow of election results broadcast on three large screens, a crowd of Orange County Republican voters got to their feet Tuesday night and shrieked.

They pumped their fists; they slapped each other’s backs; they debated whether Hillary Clinton was sobbing or screaming at her stunning defeat. “Lock her up!” they chanted as state after state turned red. “Turn out the lights!” Some called her unprintable names and wished her a lifetime of misfortune, a hope that seemed to be fulfilled in real time.

Yet in Newport Beach, one of the most conservative cities in deep-blue California, many of those same Republicans expressed private reservations, in some cases even dread, about a President Donald Trump.

“I plugged my nose and voted for him,” said Brace Lake, 50, a sales manager from Lake Forest, who arrived at the Orange County Republican Party’s election night event seeking solidarity and expecting his candidate to lose. 

“I think he is impulsive; I think he is shallow; I think he is petty,” Lake said. “But I think Clinton represents some of the darkest forces of our nation.”

When his children asked him who he was voting for, he told them: “You have a choice of either stupid crazy or evil. I’m voting for stupid crazy.”

Nearby, Leif Settergren, 60, worked the room, exhorting already frenzied Trump supporters to wave their signs and believe in their man. Trump wasn’t his first choice — he preferred Trump’s early rivals Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina — but he came around to the party’s nominee.

“He gave me something that I was looking for,” said Settergren, a Swedish immigrant who works for General Motors. In Trump, he saw a candidate who could help unskilled workers foundering in a modern economy and fight terrorism abroad with new aggression.

Still, Settergren described himself as more of a social conservative than the candidate, and more hawkish. He found Trump’s comments about women’s bodies extremely distasteful.

“I don’t like the way he expresses himself,” he said. “He needs to become more professional.”

At Blackie’s By the Sea, a bar where surfboards hang from the ceiling and locals reminisce about a simpler time when Budweiser was the only beer on tap, patrons Tuesday night kept their eyes glued to Fox News. They fretted; they said they had never seen an election like this and never wanted to again. They ordered more beer.

They did not want Clinton in the White House, of this they were sure. But what to make of Trump?

“Two years ago, I thought he was kind of a buffoon,” said Kurt Sanders, 59, a commercial photographer from Costa Mesa. The candidate with the “bad hairdo” seemed like a joke to Sanders until he became the Republican nominee. Then Sanders became convinced this was the most important election of his life.

“He said stuff that politicians don’t normally say. He said stuff that guys say in a bar — whatever was on his mind,” Sanders said. Once a doubter, he became a fan.

Republicans’ hesitancy could be seen in returns across Orange County, where for the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of voters abandoned their party’s candidate. Clinton won the county of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan by 5 percentage points, or about 39,000 votes.

“While the Trump message resonated throughout America, it really didn’t resonate here,” said Newport Beach City Councilman Keith Curry, a lifelong Republican who penned a column in the Voice of OC last year calling Trump a “misogynist, racist, egotistical clown” and predicting he would lose.

“Oops,” Curry said on Wednesday morning. Frustrated with both parties’ nominees, he said he had decided to vote for a long-shot candidate, himself. As for Trump, he said, “I hope he can govern effectively.”

Newport Beach is where Republican candidates come to collect checks from wealthy donors. With a median household income of $108,000 and more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats, it has been a stronghold of the right for decades.

But Curry said this year the city’s “contributor class” held back.

“I kept hearing, ‘I’m going to need a story to tell my kids, and I don’t want to tell them I supported Donald Trump,’ ” Curry said.

Frank Coffman, 74, who has lived in Newport Beach for nearly two decades, met news of Trump’s election with a heavy sigh. For the first time in his life, the dependable Republican had voted for a Democrat for president.

“It’s ironic. As a one-percenter, I guess it’s probably better for me that the election went this way,” he said. “However, I have fundamental problems; I worry about his character.”

anna.phillips@latimes.com

Twitter: @annamphillips

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