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O.C.'s Political Color Is a Mixed Picture

Times Staff Writer

As goes Orange County, so goes the state.

That’s not a phrase often uttered about the self-anointed “America’s Most Republican County.”

The universal notion holds that Orange County is perpetually at odds with its statewide brethren, evidenced time and again by the county’s strong preference for GOP candidates over the Democratic challengers who ultimately win election in California.

That happened again Tuesday, when 55% of state voters chose Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, who got 39% of the Orange County vote, unofficial returns show.

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Indeed, a third of California counties voted, by percentage, more heavily for President Bush than did Orange County, although it was the largest to support the Republican.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was reelected statewide with 58% of the vote, but trailed Republican Bill Jones in Orange County with 44% of the vote. But an analysis of other results from Tuesday’s election shows that when it comes to issues, Orange County and California voted similarly.

Orange County differed from state voters on only one of 16 ballot measures -- opposing a tax on people earning more than $1 million a year to pay for mental health services that passed statewide by 7 percentage points. But a majority of locals also bucked Orange County’s long-held distaste for boosting state debt, by joining the rest of the state in supporting two bond measures: $750 million for building and refurbishing children’s hospitals, and $3 billion for stem cell research.

In Orange County’s political counterpoint, Democrat-heavy San Francisco County, voters were at odds with the statewide results on four of the 16 ballot measures. That county went against the state vote by opposing limits on enforcement of unfair business practices, favoring amending the three-strikes sentencing law, against collecting DNA samples from felons, and supporting the idea of businesses paying for employee health coverage.

So does that mean Orange County is becoming more like California, or is California becoming more like Orange County? Probably both, said Dan Walters, political writer for the Sacramento Bee and author of “The New California: Facing the 21st Century.”

The image of Orange County has been defined by the conservatives it sent to Sacramento and Washington, politicians known more for their outbursts -- think Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) -- and unapologetic contrariety than their willingness to compromise. Likewise, California was defined, especially in the last decade, by similarly entrenched liberals who made up a majority of the Legislature.

But officeholders chosen in partisan primaries from the extreme left and the extreme right don’t reflect the bulk of California’s voters, Walters said. The electorate is a much more diverse bunch who see themselves pretty squarely in the center.

“The rest of California is becoming more like Orange County,” he said. “The state is not as hostile to Republicans [and] Orange County is no longer on the fringes. There’s a larger percentage of independent voters who don’t want to be aligned with any party.”

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That surge in “decline to state” voters led California to become less Democratic in the last decade, while Orange County tipped a nudge less Republican. The Democrats’ share of state voters has shrunk to 43%, while the GOP in Orange County dropped to 48%. Decline-to-state voters are 18% statewide, 17% in Orange County.

The whirlwind recall election last year that elected Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, which drew millions in cash and thousands of votes out of Orange County, was notable because, as one local GOP activist put it, “Arnold is barely Republican.”

But he was Republican enough to be endorsed by one of the county’s marquee conservatives, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).

Schwarzenegger’s synergy with the county should help blunt its extremist image, said Nancy Snow, a professor of political communication at Cal State Fullerton. “He’s really an Orange County guy. He’s pro-business, pro-law and order, and socially progressive. Orange County just reflects the state.”

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This election isn’t the first time Orange County voters agreed with the broader state electorate on ballot issues. Among 92 measures on November ballots from 1990 to 2002, Orange County differed on only 10 of them -- all measures that would have raised taxes, fees or the cost of government.

In 1996, for example, the county went against the grain of the state on three of 15 measures, opting against a $400- million bond for low-interest loans to veterans, raising the state’s minimum wage, and reforming campaign laws that critics said would benefit unions. In 2000, county voters disapproved of lowering to 55% from two-thirds the threshold for passage of school bonds; in 2002, local voters opposed a $2.1-billion bond issue for housing for homeless, battered women and low- income seniors. Those measures won statewide.

The county’s extreme image has faded, thanks to changing demographics and a more ideologically balanced group of federal and state lawmakers, including three Democrats.

Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Frank Barbaro said the rise in independent voters has led both major parties to make a greater effort to explain positions rather than “just doing the ideological knee-jerk.”

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The county’s commonality with state voters on ballot measures shows that Orange County voters continue to respond in more independent ways. Even the popular Schwarzenegger urged defeat for the two bond measures that passed statewide and in Orange County.

“People saw the value of these measures from a number of standpoints,” Barbaro said. For example, stem cell research was seen as a reasonable investment for reducing future health costs plus creating a new industry in California, he said.

Barbaro’s counterpart, Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh, took over the party reins this year with an outreach to moderate Republican donors and voters. The effort is working, he said, as shown by registration gains in Democratic districts in central Orange County. “We’re not moderating our philosophy, we’re moderating our behavior and our approach to explaining why we believe the way we do,” Baugh said. “When we take the fangs off, people see that we’re more alike than we’re different.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How O.C. voted

Orange County voters have a reputation for political contrariety with the rest of California, where Democrats make up the majority of voters. But an examination of local voting on statewide propositions showed that, with one exception, Orange County mirrored the state. In contrast, San Francisco County voters disagreed with their statewide colleagues on four of the 16 ballot measures. Below is a rundown of the differences on key measures, based on unofficial returns:

Prop. 63 (tax for mental health funding)

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*--* California Orange County San Francisco County Yes No Yes No Yes No 53% 47% 42% 57% 74% 26%

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Prop. 64 (lawsuits on unfair business practices)

*--* California Orange County San Francisco County Yes No Yes No Yes No 59% 41% 70% 30% 39% 61%

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Prop. 66 (amending three-strikes law)

*--* California Orange County San Francisco County Yes No Yes No Yes No 47% 53% 36% 64% 69% 31%

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Prop. 69 (DNA samples from arrestees, felons)

*--* California Orange County San Francisco County Yes No Yes No Yes No 62% 38% 66% 33% 45% 55%

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Prop. 72 (healthcare coverage for employees)

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*--* California Orange County San Francisco County Yes No Yes No Yes No 49% 51% 38% 62% 69% 31%

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Note: Some figures don’t total 100% because of rounding.

Source: Secretary of state’s office

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