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Progressive or moderate? New Orange County Democrats in Congress carve different paths

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Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna Beach) addresses constituents on Feb. 19.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

Winning a Republican seat in Orange County is hard enough for a Democrat. Holding it is a whole different matter.

For the record:
7:40 AM, Mar. 20, 2019 An earlier version of this article identified Rep. Gil Cisneros’ district as the 38th. He represents the 39th District.

And the four Democratic freshmen who won seats in the historically Republican county in 2018 are already staking out starkly different routes to hold onto their jobs after 2020.

Reps. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and Mike Levin (D-

San Juan Capistrano) joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus, aligning themselves with an energized, vocal group of liberal newcomers clamoring to change Washington.

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O.C.'s blue wave: A periodic look at the six Democrats in Congress now representing the former GOP stronghold. »

Laguna Beach Rep. Harley Rouda, a former Republican, is taking the opposite approach, joining the centrist New Democrat Coalition and positioning himself as a moderate who wants to ensure liberal programs make economic sense.

Yorba Linda Rep. Gil Cisneros seems to be trying to cover all bases with a combination of both strategies, joining the Progressive Caucus and the New Democrat Coalition. “They both reflect parts of who I am,” Cisneros said.

There are risks and rewards for each approach. Can unabashed progressives like Porter and Levin survive in districts that remain heavily Republican? Will Rouda’s centrist platform anger the O.C. Democratic activists who propelled him into office? How long can Cisneros straddle the party’s divide?

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Across the country, dozens of Democrats who won Republican-leaning seats are making the same calculation: how to connect with voters back home who may not share their political ideals, while still making their mark in Washington.

The Orange County Democrats will be under particular scrutiny. The area was a Republican bastion for decades and the GOP wants it back.

Keeping Orange County blue is not impossible, according to Harvard University professor Theda Skocpol. For starters, Trump is very unpopular in the county and he’ll likely be on the 2020 ballot. The rest will depend largely on how the four define themselves to their constituents.

“There are plenty of cases where someone considered to the left or right of their district continues to be reelected because there is a sense they are connected,” she said.

Levin and Porter aren’t running away from their progressive positions.

“I think you’ve got to be authentic,” Levin said. “I’m going to do my very best to listen to constituents and to people in our district. But ultimately, I think that voters will reward someone who stands on their values, and so I’m willing to let the chips fall.”

Levin, a former environmental attorney, has made climate change his signature issue, a risky gambit in a district where Republicans still hold a 3.38-percentage-point registration advantage. He was one of just three freshman Democrats appointed to the new select panel to study climate change, and he was one of the first freshmen to endorse the Green New Deal.

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Levin is chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, an unusual opportunity for a freshman — thanks largely to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who has ensured that each of the four new O.C. Democrats are getting a platform to prove themselves.

He has also made a nod to the activists who supported him by hiring local organizer Ellen Montanari to run his monthly town halls. Montanari led the Tuesday morning protests outside Rep. Darrell Issa’s office that contributed to the representative deciding not to run for reelection in the 49th District.

Porter is a protege of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and a consumer-protection law and banking expert. Her position on the House Financial Services Committee allows her to be a leading voice on Wall Street and the American banking system.

Porter has grown close to high-profile progressives, like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

Though she hasn’t received the public attention they have, Porter had some standout moments in committee hearings, including asking Equifax’s chief executive to disclose his Social Security number, birth date and address in a public, televised hearing. He refused, prompting Porter to question why the company’s lawyers argued in federal court in January that there was no injury caused by a 2017 data breach where hackers got the personal identifying information of 147 million people.

Some questioned during the campaign if Porter was too liberal for the 45th District, where Republicans hold a 5.28-point voter registration advantage. She said she wants to hear from a variety of constituents, but ultimately must vote her conscience.

“You should always be questioning why you hold the positions that you have, but I don’t think that you can adequately advocate for Orange County if you’re not willing to ultimately take the votes that you think are going to be the best for Orange County families. And sometimes those votes will be hard,” Porter said.

Because of their positions, Porter and Levin are likely the most vulnerable to GOP efforts to label O.C. Democrats as too far left.

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“We’re going to hold these socialist Democrats accountable for everything they say, everything they do, and everything their socialist-leaning party does,” said National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair, referring to all four new O.C. Democrats.

Rouda is taking a route of moderate pragmatism.

“While I’m a Democrat, and I support many of the progressive issues that we’re working on, they also have to be based on an economic foundation,” said the real estate magnate.

Rouda is the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Environment Subcommittee chairman and also serves on the House Transportation Committee.

The 48th District is the most Republican-leaning in Orange County, and even though Rouda won with nearly 54% of the vote, the GOP still has an 8.11-point voter registration advantage there. Rouda, a Republican until registering as “decline to state” 20 years ago and then as a Democrat in 2017, said he represents how the partisan makeup of his district has changed.

“I got elected because I was a mainstream candidate. I was a candidate that appealed to Democrats and Republicans and independents. Perhaps maybe not the extremists, but the vast majority of voters who tend to be between the 20-yard lines,” he said.

Even so, local Democratic activists who played a major role in his defeat of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher say they will be watching Rouda closely.

Aaron McCall, head of the local chapter of Indivisible, said the activist group will issue report cards on how Rouda votes and interacts with the community. But McCall said he understands the balancing act Rouda must play.

“If you are comparing him to Ocasio-Cortez, a lot of people would say he’s not progressive,” McCall said. “He’s extremely progressive compared to Dana Rohrabacher.”

Cisneros has taken a different route, keeping a lower profile, avoiding picking sides in the party’s political divide and focusing largely on local issues.

“There were opportunities where I could have been a subcommittee chair, or something like that. But to me it’s more important right now... to put my emphasis and my time and dedication really towards the district,” Cisneros said.

In November, Cisneros joined a handful of rebel Democrats pledging in an open letter to oppose Pelosi for speaker. But he changed his mind after Pelosi agreed to limit how long she would serve.

The 39th District has been trending blue for some time — Republicans just lost their voter registration advantage there to Democrats by nearly a percentage point — which could be part of why its long-serving Republican Rep. Ed Royce decided not to run for reelection in 2018.

Cisneros, a former Republican who became a Democrat four years ago, serves on the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees, which feeds into his Navy background and his campaign promise to work on veterans issues.

He may also be more focused on the ethnic split in the district, which is a third Latino, a third white and a third Asian. Cisneros won with just 51.6% of the vote, beating former state Assemblywoman Young Kim.

Retired UC San Diego political scientist Gary Jacobson said hedging to the center is smart, but warned that politics have become so partisan that Cisneros might find it difficult to align with both progressives and moderates for long.

“Party lines are firmer. There are no liberal Republicans. There are no conservative Democrats left,” Jacobson said. “It’s much more difficult to present yourself as someone who resides outside those partisan boxes.”

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), a second-term lawmaker who represents one of the other Orange County districts, said focusing on district priorities and constituents — rather than the glamour of Washington — is key for a first-term member seeking reelection.

“My advice is… go with your gut,” Correa said. “But hopefully your gut tells you you’ve got to be in your district.”

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