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Op-Ed: Look to Orange County for how to turn California politics purple

An Orange County election services worker demonstrates drive-through voting at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Sept.16.
An Orange County election services worker demonstrates drive-through voting at the Honda Center in Anaheim on Sept.16 as part of the county’s effort to provide a range of ways to cast a ballot.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

For decades, Orange County was a reliable incubator of conservative politics, and, in the era of Nixon, Goldwater and Reagan, a fairly powerful force in the state and on the national level. More recently, the area has been widely seen as tilting blue, particularly during the Trump era, with the media celebrating the end of “the Orange Curtain ” in the 2018 midterm elections and its metamorphosis into another addition to our state’s progressive political culture.

Yet this November’s election results tell us something more nuanced. Instead of following the flow of the state’s urban centers, Orange County turned a deep purple and, in the process, reinforced its relevance to the state’s political future.

The county defied the politics of polarization, voting for Biden against Trump, but also electing two new Republicans to Congress, Michelle Steel and Young Kim, both Korean Americans. House seats in the county are now split with five Democrats and two Republicans. And its voters supported generally conservative positions on a host of state ballot issues.

This shift is not merely an expression of pent-up white resentment. Orange County is no longer just a white enclave by the beach. It is more than half Latino and Asian, with a level of education that is considerably higher than Los Angeles’ and the state‘s. Yet despite being educated and diverse, Orange County moved back toward the center-right in this year’s elections, perhaps a harbinger of changes in other parts of California as well.

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Orange County’s electorate is clearly no longer right-wing conservative, but is quite heterogeneous compared with the state’s solidly left-leaning urbanized areas. It voted for Biden by a decisive margin, 53% to 44%, strongly rejecting Trump’s awful nativism. At the same time, it showed little interest in embracing progressive agendas on economic regulation, taxation and affirmative action.

This was most evident in the ballot propositions. Orange County voters rejected by roughly 20 percentage points Proposition 15, which would have raised taxes on commercial properties and drew fears of increased costs to already beleaguered medium-sized and small businesses. County voters approved by even larger margins Proposition 22, which exempted app-based drivers from state employee laws. That measure lost only in the Bay Area and in a few rural counties. An attempt to expand rent control failed miserably statewide, and by nearly 2 to 1 in Orange County, winning only narrowly even in the blue bastion of San Francisco.

One factor behind these politically mixed and moderate results may be the relatively high percentage of homeowners, many of whom oppose higher taxes and greater regulation. Roughly 57% of Orange County residents own their own home, compared with 45% in Los Angeles County and barely 37% in San Francisco. Homeownership rates are also much higher in the Inland Empire, the outer suburbs of the Bay Area, the North Coast and most Central Valley areas.

These are places where California’s middle class can afford homes, or have the chance to start a business, regardless of whether the state’s planning priorities pushes development into ever denser communities in coastal areas.

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Orange County, with large and diverse communities of color, also reflected how most of California viewed affirmative action. Proposition 16 — which would have allowed race, ethnicity and gender to be considered in admissions to state universities, as well as in public jobs — was soundly rejected statewide. Places that were heavily Asian, such as Orange County, voted nearly 2 to 1 against the measure, which had overwhelming support from Democratic officeholders and many progressive organizations.

The measure was crushed in the heavily Latino Inland Empire and the Central Valley as well as the outer suburbs of the Bay Area. On this issue, as with others, Orange County showed itself in tune with the rest of the state while Los Angeles and San Francisco and its close-in suburbs turned out to be out of step.

The changes in Orange County show that it’s possible to build toward a California that is more dynamic and purple in its politics. The GOP has had some success running Asian American candidates and has been recruiting Latinos, including Michael Garcia, who appears to have won reelection by the slimmest of margins in Congressional District 25, which covers parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties. But that success will be limited if the party also tries to appeal to the vestigial hard right, which historically has trafficked in racist dog whistles.

With Asian American candidates who have strong track records in state politics, the GOP was able to retake from Democrats two ethnically diverse suburban districts. In another Orange County district, first-term Democrat Katie Porter, an acolyte of Elizabeth Warren, won reelection by 7 points in a once-safe GOP seat. Her challenger, a largely unknown and predictably right-wing candidate, Greg Raths, ran an underfunded campaign that seemed to be based on his honorable service in the Marines. That patriotic connection may have worked in the old O.C., but not any longer in what has become a highly diverse, well-educated and affluent district.

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The 2020 results offer a strong prospect, not for a decisive GOP resurgence, but for a return to a more robust two-party system that will be shaped in places such as Orange County and the Inland Empire. This may be the best way to bring balance to our politics and restore some badly needed electoral leverage for California’s beleaguered and increasingly diverse middle class.

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. He is the author of “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.” @joelkotkin


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