“Orange County,” the California collection of 34 cities and 3.2 million residents once described by President Reagan as where “all the good Republicans go to die,” died Tuesday. It was 129 years old.
Long famous for its wealth, whiteness and conservative values, Orange County is survived by its offspring, who include a population that is about 60% people of color, some of the most crowded and poor neighborhoods in the United States and a Republican Party that’s on the ropes. Once reliably red, the official cause of O.C.’s passing is a case of the blue flu, which turned its politics more purple than Barney the dinosaur.
While the election results won’t be final, possibly for days, by Wednesday morning it seemed likely that Democrats could represent five of of the seven congressional districts that are are entirely or partially in the county — a once-unthinkable prospect in the land that spawned the modern-day GOP.
The death shocked everyone who hadn’t bothered to pay attention for decades. County boosters and leaders had desperately tried to mask its failing health with a series of anti-immigrant resolutions, orange-shaped balloons at Great Park, and a string of increasingly vapid reality TV series. But as the years went on, the Orange County of old gradually succumbed to a new generation of working-class unions, multicultural youngsters and middle-class voters who just didn’t care about demonizing the downtrodden, except for the homeless.
At its prime, Orange County was a region of contradictions.
Orange County announced its birth in a fitting way in 1889: It seceded from Los Angeles County with the help of Henry W. Head, a state Assembly member who’d been a member of the Ku Klux Klan back in his native Tennessee. The baptismal font of white supremacy ensured that a feudal society took hold, one where residents felt they lived in a fantasia of citrus groves and McMansions and Disneyland while the Mexicans who worked there were expected to live meekly and in Santa Ana.
The rest of the United States looked on with a mixture of admiration and disgust as this geographically small region infiltrated all parts of American life: Religion through the Crystal Cathedral, Calvary Chapel and Saddleback Church. Popular culture via surfing and punk music. Politics through a succession of increasingly unhinged Republicans, not least of whom was native son Richard Nixon.
At its prime, Orange County was a region of contradictions. It considered government evil even as it benefited from the largesse of defense contracts. It stressed its Christian values even as it fought to maintain its segregated schools. It swore by law and order even as it elected politicians and sheriffs who landed in federal prison for corruption.
Fortune might’ve put it best in 1968, when the hardly radical magazine described Orange County as “nut country” for its many Birchers and homophobic politicians such as John Briggs, who pushed a state proposition to ban LGBTQ people from working in public schools. (Even Ronald Reagan opposed that one.) But O.C. took pride in its pariah status among liberals, and distanced itself from the rest of Southern California, but especially Los Angeles, which residents stereotyped as a lefty wasteland of Jews and blacks (who, at the time of O.C.’s passing, still made up just 2% of the county’s population).
The county’s heyday was arguably the 1980s, when it started out still about 80% white. Reagan kicked off his ’84 presidential reelection campaign at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley, where he uttered his famous description of the region. The California Angels and Los Angeles Rams packed them in at Angels Stadium, thanks to their respective clean-cut stars, slugger Wally Joyner and quarterback Jim Everett. The El Toro Marine Corps Air Station hummed with activity. And the cool kids tuned in late nights to watch platinum-haired conservative firebrand Wally George on “The Hot Seat” on KDOC.
But the end was near. Joyner and Everett fizzled out, El Toro closed, and the Rams … who cares about them? And then in 1994, the all-Republican Board of Supervisors had to explain to shocked residents how prosperous O.C. had collapsed into what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
Another gut punch landed two years later, when Loretta Sanchez — a former Republican — upset longtime Congressman Bob Dornan by 984 votes. The House investigated Dornan’s claims of voter fraud for more than a year but found nothing. The victory allowed Democrats to build a redoubt around central Orange County for the wars to come.
Mourners may see an O.C. that, outwardly, looks little changed, like Vladimir Lenin’s corpse. The GOP still dominates local politics, and the county’s median household income of $90,000 remains $25,000 higher than the state’s. But in the current decade, a new generation of Latino activists successfully sued O.C. cities to implement district elections, and has begun to get more minorities elected. And those few millennials who could afford to stay in their parents’ paradise increasingly voted for Democrats — and frequently visited evil, evil L.A.
The rest of the nation finally noticed the new Orange County during the 2016 presidential election, when Hillary Clinton garnered more votes than Donald Trump — the first time O.C. went for a Democrat in 80 years. Liberals pounced on the breakthrough with millions of dollars in donations to local Democrats, an invigorated volunteer base, and a slew of first-time candidates.
Scared, two longtime GOP congressmen — Ed Royce and Darrell Issa — didn’t seek reelection; a third, Dana Rohrabacher, bumbled along as always. The Orange County GOP, meanwhile, helplessly stood by as President Trump’s incendiary language alienated educated suburban women. Regardless of the final vote tallies, the fact that Democrats came to O.C. to pick up House seats is a stake in Nixonland’s vampire heart.
Orange County is survived by Scottsdale, Ariz., Plano, Texas, and other once-sleepy burbs that now host former residents who still want to live in a booboisie bubble. In lieu of flowers, please send condolences to the Republican Party of Orange County — because it’s likely next.
11:00 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details on election results and a correction on the age of the county.