Republicans push back the 2018 ‘blue wave’ in Orange County

 Trump supporters shout to  motorists in front of GOP headquarters in Newport Beach
Trump supporters shout to passing motorists in front of GOP headquarters on election day in Newport Beach.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Two years ago marked a monumental shift for California politics: Four districts in the then-Republican bastion of Orange County flipped blue, ushering in four Democrats to the House of Representatives.

But 2020 is shaping up as a reversal of that blue wave, although how big a retrenchment it will be remains an open question. With few ballots left to count, Republicans have taken back at least one seat in Orange County and padded their vote lead in other swing districts across Southern California.

In a major win for the GOP, California 48th District Congressman Harley Rouda, a Democrat, conceded to his Republican opponent, Michelle Steel on Tuesday, in one of several hard-fought races in areas that until recently were considered conservative strongholds. Steel remained ahead of Rouda by 2%, or 7,000 votes, as of Tuesday.


O.C. Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said all in-person votes and 99% of mail-in ballots have been counted, leaving about 28,000 ballots to be processed. Kelley said he anticipates the final tally to be complete in about two weeks.

Steel’s win takes back one of several seats that the California GOP lost in the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats made big gains in O.C. and other red-leaning areas. The historic clean sweep gave Democrats control of all seven O.C. seats during the 116th Congress.

The 2018 results delivered a blow to Republicans in California’s moneyed coast, home to sprawling suburbs and the birthplace of Richard Nixon, the region described by Ronald Reagan as “a place where good Republicans go to die.”

Supervisor Michelle Steel  during Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting
Supervisors Donald P. Wagner and Michelle Steel during a meeting in April 2019.
(Mark Boster / For The Times)

The post-election day success for these Republican candidates is a shift from the norm, according to Chapman University research analyst and co-director of the annual O.C. survey Michael Moodian.

“In the past we’ve seen Republicans doing well on election night and Democrats making ground from mail-in ballots,” Moodian said. “But the numbers being released after election day are favoring Republicans, which says to me that more Democrats voted early.”

The switch also could mean that more Republicans registered on election day to vote in person.

Steel, 65, will become one of the first two Korean American women to serve in the U.S. Congress, along with incoming Democratic representative Marilyn Strickland of Washington, who is of African American and Korean descent.

While voter registration has flipped in favor of Democrats across the county, Steel’s district remains one of two that maintain a Republican voter registration advantage.

“This victory has been hard-fought and hard-won, and I could not be more humbled to have your support nor more honored to serve our community in Congress,” Steel, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, wrote in a tweet. “Now, let’s get to work.”

The race between Rouda and Steel campaigns was as hard-fought as it was narrowly won. From social media posts to television ads, Steel’s campaign portrayed Rouda as a politician who would raise taxes. Rouda’s campaign countered by branding Steel as “the most corrupt politician in O.C.”

Rouda was endorsed by Joe Biden, whom O.C. backed over President Trump. Four years ago, the 58-year-old lawyer ousted 15-term Republican Dana Rohrabacher, who became increasingly unpopular during his final term.

Rep. Harley Rouda talks to members of the Huntington Beach Rotary Club
Rep. Harley Rouda talks to members of the Huntington Beach Rotary Club in 2019.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In a sign of how aggressively both parties plan to continue fighting for control over the district, Rouda already has announced his intention to run again in the upcoming midterm election, when voters can “compare my opponent’s two years in Congress with my accomplishments on Nov. 8, 2022.”

Democratic Party of Orange County chair Ada Briceño reiterated the sentiment in a statement.

“Congressman Harley Rouda is an outstanding leader who put Orange County residents first. This election was extremely close, so make no mistake: We’re taking this seat back in 2022,” she said.

In another tight race in Orange County, challenger Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman, is trying to oust incumbent Gil Cisneros in their rematch for the 39th District. Kim, who won the district’s March primary by more than 2,000 votes, currently has a lead of around 4,000 votes, or 1.2% of ballots.

The Korean immigrant started her career running a women’s apparel business and later organized community outreach projects for Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), while serving occasional stints as a host on Korean-language radio.

Seen as an underdog competitor to Cisneros, a lottery winner-turned philanthropist and politician, Kim faced a disadvantage in a district where 37% of registered voters are Democrats. Republicans made up 32.5% and independents made up 28.7% of the registered voters in October.

On election night, both Cisneros and Rouda took early leads, but since then their Republican opponents have steadily gained ground.

In yet another hotly contested campaign, in northern Los Angeles County, incumbent Rep. Mike Garcia, a Republican, was clinging to a lead of 159 votes over Assemblywoman Christy Smith in the race for the 25th Congressional District, according to the latest data from the Los Angeles and Ventura county registrar offices.

In 2018, that seat flipped from red to blue when Democratic newcomer Katie Hill unseated Republican incumbent Steve Knight. But Hill resigned less than a year into her term after admitting an inappropriate relationship with a campaign staffer.

The vote count has see-sawed between Garcia and Smith, who held the lead Monday. Moodian said that Garcia’s win in the special election to replace Hill had given a misleading understanding of the political alignment of the district, which includes Santa Clarita and stretches east to the Antelope Valley and contains more registered Democrats than Republicans.

“Special elections draw in more registered Republicans,” Moodian said, “it also comes off the heels of the Katie Hill controversy, so that all bodes well for Mike Garcia.”

By Tuesday Garcia had pulled slightly ahead of Smith as ballot counting continued.