Orange County was once an instant synonym for Republican power, and the GOP’s dominance looked impregnable. Now, battered by the recent election results and dismayed by the slow, steady decline in party registration, Republicans here are struggling to craft a new strategy.
The percentage of registered Republicans has eroded — it now stands at 41% — and the party has long since lost control of the political districts that envelop the county seat of Santa Ana, a Latino-dominated city of 330,000, and surrounding communities in the county’s core.
This month’s election brought more blows. For the second time, the once-red city of Irvine voted for Barack Obama over the Republican candidate. And a northwestern chunk of the county fell to the Democrats when GOP Assemblyman Chris Norby, an outspoken conservative, lost to Latina schoolteacher Sharon Quirk-Silva.
Asked to explain the loss, Scott Baugh, chairman of the county’s Republican Party, attributed it to “not fully appreciating the demographic shift and not seeing it in time.”
Baugh and other Republicans say Latinos belong naturally in the GOP, citing a cultural emphasis on faith, family, education and the value of hard work.
If Congress deals with the immigration issue, “It’s game on again in terms of a competition of ideas and values,” Baugh said. “You could wipe out a decade of declining registration by demonstrating to the Latino community that the values they have are the values we have.”
Right now, with the immigration issue near the top of Latinos’ concerns, many Republicans say their core message of liberty, family values and a free market falls on deaf ears.
“The Republican Party has done such a poor job of, one, messaging; and two, letting themselves be demonized and not fighting back,” said Teresa Hernandez, who runs the immigration reform committee for the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a conservative group. “If I knock on the door and say, ‘I’m a Republican,’ they don’t want to hear what I say on the economy or education because they have it in their mind that I’m a bigot.”
To appreciate the scale of the countywide political shift, consider that in mid-1996, when registered Republicans eclipsed Democrats 52% to 32%, no Orange County Democrat held a single partisan elected office on the county, state or federal level.
This is the county that yielded conservative firebrands Robert K. Dornan and Wally George, and has long been associated publicly with right-of-center social causes, as in the late 1970s, when a state senator from Fullerton launched a ballot measure to bar gay teachers from California schools.
By a recent count, about 34% of the county’s roughly 3 million people are Latino — a powerful voting bloc with strong Democratic leanings. In the presidential election, President Obama won 71% of the Latino vote nationwide to Mitt Romney’s 27%.
For the Orange County GOP, the effort to capture the Latino vote has proved elusive, in no small part because the county has a reputation as a cradle of border-crackdown activism, such as Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative intended to cut public services for illegal immigrants.
When President George W. Bush came to Irvine in 2006 to pitch his immigration reform plan — which involved a guest-worker program — some local notables in his own party refused to attend, criticizing his plan as amnesty for illegal immigrants. Dana Rohrabacher, the longtime Republican congressman from Huntington Beach, noted that a photo op with the president would be politically imprudent in such a setting.
Irvine offers a window into the GOP’s struggles.
Joseph Cruz, an Irvine tax attorney and second-generation Filipino American, went to the polls feeling no hesitancy about which party to vote for. A path to citizenship for America’s undocumented population was a top priority, which he said aligned him with Democrats.
“People assume it’s a Latino thing,” Cruz said of immigration reform, but as an Asian American, he feels estranged from Republicans who “haven’t said anything that’s really solution-based.”
Cruz, 36, reflects the changing face of Irvine, Orange County’s third-largest city and its emblematically master-planned centerpiece, where the Asian population has shot from 8% in 1980 to nearly 40% now.
A decade ago, nearly half of Irvine voters registered Republican. It now stands at 33%, barely outnumbering Democrats. It’s possible Irvine may soon join the county’s two largest cities — Santa Ana and Anaheim — where Democrats already outnumber Republicans.
Countywide, Romney beat Obama 52% to 45%, but in Irvine, the percentage was nearly inverted: voters chose the president over Romney 52% to 44%.
Cruz said his Philippines-born father, who found a path to U.S. citizenship by joining the U.S. Navy in the 1960s, votes Republican out of a belief in low taxes and a strong military. But “it’s hard for me, a working professional, a child of immigrants who’s not white, to associate myself” with the Republican Party, Cruz said.
The GOP’s decline in Orange County doesn’t translate automatically into Democratic votes. Independent voters constitute large percentages in Orange County’s three biggest cities. In Irvine, by the latest count, those who registered “other” stood at about 35%, a larger percentage than the two big parties.
With the election wounds fresh, the GOP is debating with added urgency how to recast its message and strategy.
Aggressively recruiting Latino candidates for the GOP is crucial, said Hernandez, of the Lincoln Club. “If they’re Hispanic and Republican and want to run, we need to bend over backward to help them run,” Hernandez said.
At the state GOP’s convention in February, she said, she will push to amend the party platform to include a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants. She said she has pleaded with party leaders that it is necessary to change public perceptions about the GOP, but that her pleas have often been ignored.
There is precedent for GOP flexibility on the issue, she said, noting George W. Bush’s guest-worker plan, President Reagan’s support of an amnesty program and President Eisenhower’s backing of the “bracero” program, which allowed migrant agricultural workers to work in the U.S.
“We have been, for a long time, concerned by the fact that the Republican Party is not well-liked within the Latino community,” added Bob Loewen, president of the county’s Lincoln Club.
“Every single election, our party seems to go off on the immigration issue in ways that sound mean-spirited.”
In the late 1990s, he said, the party made an effort to reach out to Latinos, holding fundraisers and looking for Latino candidates, but “we were just not very good at knowing how to do it.”
The GOP might make inroads among the large ranks of the county’s independent voters if it is somehow able to adapt to changing demographics and fashion a more inclusive message, said Fred Smoller, a professor of political science at Brandman University, a division of Chapman University.
“If the true believers are unwilling to compromise, then they’re dead,” Smoller said. “Older white guys are dying off, and they’re being replaced by 18-year-old Latinos. And young people are just generally more tolerant.”