If you think the nation has been inordinately obsessed with Orange County’s House races, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Democratic candidates managed to place second in races for the 39th, 45th, 48th and 49th congressional districts — districts the national Democratic Party has declared essential to winning control of the House in the midterms. I expect national political reporters to be parachuting into O.C. Nov. 6 as if it were D-Day.
I get the obsession. The possibility that O.C. could deliver control of Congress to Democrats — a once-unthinkable proposition — appears from the outside like a great dramatic turnaround story. Yes, minorities live here — a majority of us, even! Yes, GOP registration figures are precipitously down from historical heights in the Reagan years.
But the crucial national insight out of the O.C. primary is this: The Republican Party can survive in an increasingly diverse America if it makes Asians “white.”
The strategy has worked marvelously well for the Republican Party of Orange County. Contrary to any portrayal as racist troglodytes, the GOP here has proven a pioneer in diversifying O.C.’s politics. The man who created the county’s modern-day GOP, Tom Fuentes, was Mexican American. The first Latino on the Orange County Board of Supervisors was Republican Gaddi Vasquez. Although Latinos sure as heck don’t embrace him as one of their own, even O.C. Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas is half-Mexican.
The GOP has done better at promoting Asian American politicians. America’s first Thai American elected official was an O.C. Republican, as was one of the United States’ first Japanese American mayors and its first Vietnamese city council member.
Today, Asian American Republicans dominate Orange County politics. Three of the five members on the Board of Supervisors are Asian Americans; the clerk-recorder is a Vietnamese refugee. This fall, there’s a strong possibility the county will send two Asian immigrants to the state Senate and three to the Assembly. And I won’t even get into the deep bench of young, diverse faces the GOP has waiting in line in local offices.
Meanwhile, in this vital election year, the local Democratic Party is still relying on — there’s no way to put this nicely — tired old men. O.C.’s sole Democratic congressman, Lou Correa, is nice but inspires as much passion as a lawn. Assemblyman Tom Daly was mayor of Anaheim back when I was a teen — what is he still doing on my ballot? And State Senate candidate Tom Umberg was a rising star for the local Democratic Party … in the early 1990s.
In the congressional battlefields, the sole minority Democrat is Gil Cisneros, who will face off against Young Kim in the 39th District. But Cisneros is everything Democrats rail against on the national stage — a self-funded millionaire with no real local ties or political experience. Meanwhile, Kim’s story — a small-business owner who worked her way through elections for lower office to become a state assemblywoman and possibly the first Korean American woman ever elected to Congress — is the stuff of Democratic P.R. dreams.
How did the O.C. GOP beat the Democrats in the diversity sweepstakes? Contrary to what President Trump and other xenophobes want you to believe, many immigrants to this country come with skills and ambitions and don’t want government handouts. The O.C. GOP has positioned itself as the party of liberty, but also tighter borders and anti-sanctuary for immigrants — successfully tapping into anti-Latino sentiment that plays well with other immigrant communities. In short, they’ve constructed a new racial cold war.
I hate praising the O.C. GOP, which long supported corrupt politicians and invented the anti-Mexican strategy that the national GOP eagerly swallowed. Now they have successfully made Asian candidates palatable to suburban voters, an alternative to those unelectable Latinos.
Still, Democrats have done little other than to say they’re not Republicans, which isn’t a winning strategy, even in the era of Trump.
Democrats would be in a better position to win the four O.C. House seats in November if they’d drawn from a more diverse pool of candidates. The county’s demographic change is real, and younger Asian Americans are more liberal than their parents, even if they still vote for their own kind. O.C. Democrats are grooming a stable of young Latino candidates on the city council level, but that’s not going to be of immediate help.
Democrats have five months to figure out how to pull a victory out of Orange County. In the four key House districts, Republicans still hold a lead in voter registrations. It’s going to be fun, so expect documentaries, special reports and magazine spreads. If Trump continues to antagonize young voters, swaying turnout unpredictably, you might even see upsets in November.
But as it stands right now, the O.C. Republicans have a slate of diversity that looks like modern-day California while Democrats look like they are immigrants … from Idaho.