Democrats Gaining Strength

Mark P. Petracca, a Democrat, is chair of the Department of Politics & Society at UC Irvine

The political landscape in Orange County is changing--and for the better. Competitive elections, a defining characteristic of a healthy representative democracy, are finally arriving. Competitive elections promote voter choice, stimulate citizen involvement in the political process and assure accountability.

Only the ruling Republicans in Orange County, fearing a loss of domination over politics, policy and power, could bemoan the ascendancy of electoral competition. Yet no amount of moaning by state GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder or county GOP Chairman Tom Fuentes can prevent the inevitable return of electoral competition.

The road has been slow. It started not with anything Democrats did, but with outbursts against the GOP leadership by local Republicans. Judge Judith Ryan posed a formidable primary challenge against Bob Dornan in 1992. Notable county Republicans endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992 and ’96, only to be abused as “traitors” or dismissed as “irrelevant” by right-wing GOP sycophants. Then, Loretta Sanchez, a Republican turned Democrat, won the 46th congressional district in ’96 and reelection against Bob Dornan in ’98. The efforts of Democrats to help Sanchez defeat Dornan for a second time also assisted Democrats Lou Correa and Joe Dunn in besting GOP incumbents for election to the state Assembly and Senate respectively.

But the important evidence of renewed electoral competition rests in the declining ability of the Republican Party to mobilize voters for GOP statewide candidates. Orange County voters gave Pete Wilson a margin of 192,949 votes in 1990, enough to squeak by Dianne Feinstein for governor. Wilson’s bonus from county voters in 1994 was 287,546 votes in his reelection bid against Democrat Kathleen Brown. This was a feat the local GOP could not repeat for George Bush in 1992 or Bob Dole in 1996.


In November 1998, Dan Lungren’s bonus from the conservative Republican stronghold of Orange County was an anemic 47,725 votes. Ouch. Even county homeboy Curt Pringle received only an extra 95,250 votes in his failed bid for state treasurer, far short of the 227,504-vote edge county Republicans enjoy in voter registration over Democrats. Amazingly, a majority of Orange County voters voted for a Democrat in 1998, Controller Kathleen Connell, rejecting the only Latino Republican--Ruben Barrales--running for statewide office. Simply put, the local GOP has squandered and lost its celebrated ability to turn out hordes of Republicans to support statewide Republican candidates.

The causes of such changes are many. Foremost is the changing demographics of the state and county. It’s projected that, given continued immigration and differential birth rates, by 2000 only 50.6% of Californians will be white. More important, as 1998 exit polls showed, Latino and Asian citizens are starting to make up a larger percentage of the electorate and, along with African Americans, are overwhelmingly supporting Democrats. Local Republicans have either ignored or alienated these new voters and continue to do so at their peril.

Second, the alienation of moderate Republicans in the county, especially women, from Orange County’s Republican establishment has facilitated electoral competitiveness. Survey data show that local Republicans have been, for some time, far more moderate in their political views than the officials elected to represent them. When presented with moderate alternatives, these Republican voters rally to support them; Assemblywoman Marilyn Brewer, a Republican who supports abortion rights, is a case in point.

Third, changes in the rules of the political game by California voters have enhanced electoral competition. Term limits at the state, county and local level force entrenched incumbents to leave office regularly, creating competitive primaries for party nominations and competitive open seat elections.

Open primaries enable voters, unmediated by party bosses, to select nominees for the general election. At the very least, the potential for crossover voting in an open primary increases the incentive candidates have to move to the center of the political spectrum, an idea foreign to the county’s GOP leadership. Once elected, moderate officeholders might address important policy problems instead of wasting time on ideological skirmishes so characteristic of past county legislators.

Fourth, the growth of independent voters, coupled with changes in political rules, increases the likelihood of competitive elections. Both major parties are slowly losing their dominance over the registered voters. Mirroring a statewide trend, a growing number of county voters are either independents or affiliated with a “minor” party.

As elections become more competitive and Democrats continue to win, the stigma attached to being a Democrat in Orange County, which motivated Roger Stanton, William Steiner, Mark Leyes, Susan Withrow and Brewer, among others, to switch party affiliations, will wane. Perhaps the switch in party registration associated with Sanchez from Republican to Democrat will become the next trend to define the county’s political landscape.