Republicans may take back two congressional seats in key Orange County races

Michelle Steel and Harley Rouda
Michelle Steel, an Orange County supervisor, and incumbent Harley Rouda are in a close battle for the 48th Congressional District, which covers the county’s coast.
(Steel and Rouda campaigns)

In a rare bright spot for California’s beleaguered GOP, two Republican challengers are within striking distance of unseating two Orange County Democrats who were elected to Congress during the 2018 blue wave.

In both races, the Republicans are slightly ahead, but the margins are thin enough that it could take a while before final numbers are available.

If they go on to win, it would mark a major political reversal in Orange County, a onetime Republican stronghold that has become increasingly purple in recent years. The county picked Joe Biden over Donald Trump on Tuesday.


Two years ago, Democrats flipped four seats blue, bringing Gil Cisneros (District 39), Katie Porter (45), Harley Rouda (48) and Mike Levin (49) into office. Democrats held all seven of the county’s seats during the 116th Congress.

As of Wednesday morning, county Supervisor Michelle Steel was clinging to a slender lead over Rouda, and former state Assemblywoman Young Kim was leading Cisneros.

Overall, Democratic congressional candidates in several districts took an early lead Tuesday night, with over 5-percentage-point leads in some competitive reelection races across the county.

The GOP has been struggling across California in the last two decades, with Democrats dominating in Sacramento and currently holding 45 of 53 congressional seats.

District 39 spans Anaheim Hills to Buena Park and parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino county; 48 includes Laguna Beach, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach; and 49 includes Dana Point and San Clemente in Orange County and parts of San Diego County.

The Associated Press declared Porter the winner over Republican challenger and Mission Viejo Mayor Greg Raths. The AP also declared Levin the winner over Republican businessman Brian Maryott.


“I want to thank Katie Porter for running a clean and fair campaign,” Raths said in an interview.

As of Wednesday morning, Steel was up by fewer than 2,000 votes, barely half a percent, and Kim had widened her margin by over 8,000 votes, or almost 5 percentage points, in Orange County.

Gil Cisneros and Young Kim
Incumbent Gil Cisneros and challenger Young Kim are in a close battle for the 39th Congressional District, which covers northern Orange County.
(Cisneros and Kim campaigns)

After losing to Cisneros in 2018 by 7,611 votes, Kim beat Cisneros in the March primaries by more than 2,000 votes.

In north Los Angeles County, the Democratic candidate for California’s 25th District, Christy Smith, is narrowly leading Republican incumbent Mike Garcia in a sprawling district that stretches east to the Antelope Valley.

California GOP field and political director Bryan Watkins said winning the two Orange County congressional seats would be crucial for the party.

“The goal was to win back these seats we lost previously to Sacramento or D.C.,” Watkins said. “Young and Steel are the embodiment of the American dream and they have a solid pulse on their communities.”

Early Wednesday afternoon, Rouda posted on Facebook thanking the volunteers who helped his “grassroots” campaign.

“We are confident that the voters of California’s 48th district put country over party at the ballot box and voted for integrity and decency,” he wrote in the post.

Steel’s campaign communications director, Lance Trover, said they are optimistic but will continue to monitor incoming results.

In Orange County, reminders that it was election day were not hard to find.

Nov. 3, 2020

Cisneros released a statement Tuesday night emphasizing all ballots had yet to be counted.

“We must count every vote, because every voice in the 39th District matters,” Cisneros wrote.

Meanwhile, Kim’s deputy campaign manager, Linette Choi, said in a statement: “There are still plenty of votes to be counted, but we are confident that our message to be an independent voice for this community resonated with voters.”

Chapman University political science professor Fred Smoller, who conducts annual surveys on Orange County voters, said the tight races in the county were expected.

“The big picture is that O.C. has moved from red county to purple county. The Democrats did incredibly well in 2018, and now there could be a slight reversal,” Smoller said.

Rouda’s and Levin’s districts maintain a slight Republican voter registration advantage. Cisneros’ district leads in registered Democrats by less than a percentage point.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the county since the Great Depression, beating out Trump by 5 percentage points.

Joe Biden was leading Donald Trump, 54% to 44.2%, Wednesday morning, with a margin of more than 125,000 votes, the Orange County registrar of voters office said.

Nov. 4, 2020

Smoller said he predicted that Steel’s ties to Trump could be a hindrance to her campaign. But he believes election results show that voters are splitting their ballots.

“We’re seeing that the coronavirus and the economy are mutually compelling imperatives. Steel took one position and I think it helped her in her conservative district,” Smoller said.

Asian American voters, whom Smoller says often support members of their own ethnic group, may have helped Kim take an early lead.

Other Asian American candidates are faring well in early election counts as well, including Democratic Dave Min, who is running for a state Senate seat, and Republican Steven Choi, who is running for state Assembly.

Min’s campaign manager, Ash Alvandi, said the team is cautiously optimistic that the lead will hold.

Democratic Party of Orange County Chair Ada Briceño remained confident that Democrats will hold on to their congressional seats.