Donald Trump's success poses a challenge to O.C. GOP's effort to broaden its base

Four years ago, Maribel Marroquin began knocking on doors in her Santa Ana neighborhood, trying to persuade more Latinos in Orange County to vote Republican.

It was an uphill struggle in the heavily Democratic area. But the 25-year-old Mexican American college student racked up some victories, including persuading her all-Democratic family to switch.

Then Donald Trump came along, referring to Mexico sending "rapists" and drug dealers to the United States and threatening to deport millions while building a massive wall along the border.

"To have worked so hard and taken so many steps forward and then to have somebody like Trump with his comments come in, it just sets us back a lot," Marroquin said.

Marroquin is part of a larger strategy by the Orange County GOP to recruit more Latino and Asian voters. The county, a birthplace of the Reagan revolution and reliable conservative stronghold, has seen Republican registration plummet as the population transitions from mostly white to majority minority.

Republican registration is now at about 40%, down from nearly 60% a generation ago. Though Republicans still outnumber Democrats in the county, their shrinking ranks hurt the GOP on the statewide level.

President Obama's reelection in 2012 was a turning point, said Fred Whitaker, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. Only 27% of Asian Americans and 29% of Latinos in California voted Republican.

Orange County GOP leaders began more aggressively targeting non-white voters, notably Vietnamese Americans, whose disdain for the Communist government in Vietnam has made them more receptive to the GOP than other Asian American groups.

Last year, the GOP scored an upset victory when Republican Andrew Do defeated Democrat Lou Correa for a seat on the county Board of Supervisors.

But the rise of Trump has some in Orange County worried about these fragile gains.

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"I think some of the rhetoric has been over the top and not helpful and certainly I don't think that castigating one group in society is the way to deal with the problem of illegal immigration," Whitaker said. "Frankly, most of the illegal immigrants right now are not coming from Mexico and many are visa overstays. I'll disagree with Mr. Trump on that."

For several years, Republicans have been working with the Lincoln Club, a prominent business-oriented political action committee, to improve the GOP's standing with local minority communities. They groomed and financially backed Asians and Latinos for local offices, such as Cecilia Iglesias, a Republican and Santa Ana Unified School District trustee.

Iglesias said she tells Latinos she tries to register as Republican to not focus on the presidential race "because that is not going to dictate what happens here.... Vote for the person who is going to be more aligned with your values."

When Trump comes up, Iglesias said she tells them: He "is an entrepreneur, a businessman and he's marketing himself to the base…. But don't let that distract you."

Trump's most heated rhetoric has been about immigration from Latin America. But some worry he could also alienate some Asian Republicans.

A 2014 survey by APIAVote, a group that tries to mobilize Asian American and Pacific Islanders into greater electoral participation, found that 41% of Asian American voters would probably vote against a candidate who expressed strongly negative views about immigrants, even if the voter agreed with him or her on other issues.

Outside the packed 85 Degrees C Bakery in Irvine, Kim Nguyen, 30, of Huntington Beach said she remembered the way Trump responded when he was asked about the support he got from David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

"He's very defensive. Moreover, he's crude," Nguyen said. "He's ignorant. He should know that a president should reflect what America is — and it isn't someone like him."

Four years ago, Nguyen voted for Mitt Romney. Though she is Republican, she said she won't vote for Trump. Nguyen said she doesn't think Trump's ascendancy was going to help the GOP recruit Asians.

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"For young people who are deciding what party to join, I would run — and far away — from the Republicans if this is the kind of guy they nominate," she said.

Still, there are Latinos and Asians in Orange County who support Trump. They say they are drawn to his ideas on the economy and what they see as his great success.

Korean Americans Rose Lee, 30, and her partner, Michael An, 31, said the only reason they're paying more attention to politics is because of Trump. For the first time, they're watching prime-time debates and tracking the polls. The marketing specialists from Costa Mesa say they are inspired by the businessman.

"He could say his message differently, but the fact is he's very real. I agree with everything he stands for," Lee said.

"I'm tuning in because I want to know what he says," An added. "I think there's more pride now in our country because we have this amazing personality people are following. I like his negatives. To me, they are positives."

But Jay Park, 23, a conservative independent who is a political science student at Irvine Valley College, called Trump a "ridiculous person."

"To be fair, I like his ideas on trade and on how we can beat back ISIS with more military force, but because he discriminates, youths like me can't vote for him because we want people to work together," Park said.

The fact that both Republicans and Democrats are fighting for non-white voters in Orange County reflects a major demographic shift. In 2003, whites lost their majority status amid a surge of Latino and Asian residents. From 2000 to 2010, Asian American saw a 41% increase, now making up about 600,000 of Orange County's 3 million residents.

Wayne Lindholm, the Lincoln Club's president, said his group has surveyed 12,000 Latinos who rank jobs, education and crime as some of the issues most important to them.

At a meeting in late summer at Palm Lane Park in Anaheim, Teresa Hernandez, a Lincoln Club leader, spoke to a group of overwhelmingly Latino parents who wanted to create a charter school. A woman waved a stack of voter registration cards to the crowd.

"All of us here are Republicans. And most of the people who are against you are Democrats," she told the crowd in Spanish. "If you are going to vote, vote for people who are going to help you."

It remains unclear how much support Trump has in Orange County or how much that would divide the local Republican Party.

But Marroquin, the Republican college student, said Trump could prove a setback for her cause.

"Both of my parents are Mexican. A lot of people I know and love are Mexicans as well," she said. "How would you feel if someone insults your family and culture in that way and says that everyone who crosses the border are rapists and drug dealers?"

Jeanette Saldivar, a 40-year-old Mexican American from Anaheim, said that Trump appealed to her at first.

"If he was going to do good for himself he could do good for the country. I'm going to vote for him," the registered Republican said was her thinking. "He can bring the economy up, jobs, everything."

But as Trump's comments about immigrants, women and Muslims heated up, Saldivar said she was turned off and can no longer support him.

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

anh.do@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 22, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Trump making it harder for GOP to expand in O.C." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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