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Blue wave in Orange County relies on two ex-Republicans turned Democrats

Blue wave in Orange County relies on two ex-Republicans turned Democrats
Gil Cisneros, left, and Harley Rouda are both former Republicans running for Congress as Democrats in Orange County. (Associated Press, AFP/Getty Images)

If you had to conjure a stock Republican congressman in coastal Orange County, he might be Harley Rouda — tall and tanned, a wealthy real estate investor with a square jaw, blue eyes and the tough-talking manner of a man who runs his own multimillion-dollar company.

Except Rouda left the GOP two decades ago.

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Now he is one of two Republicans-turned-Democrat fighting to flip the once famously right-wing county that voted for every Republican candidate for president since Franklin D. Roosevelt — until Donald Trump came along.

Rouda, 56, is challenging 15-term Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th Congressional District, the deepest-red part of the county.

To the northeast, Gil Cisneros, 47, a Navy veteran who won a $266-million lottery, is running against Young Kim, a former state assemblywoman. He soured on the Republican Party when some followers embraced the fallacy, pushed most notably by Trump, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

Rouda and Cisneros say they have not changed their views so much as the Republican Party has narrowed its base, moving away from fiscal responsibility, free trade and its internationalist outlook.

Democratic congressional candidate Gil Cisneros speaks with reporters at Cal State Fullerton. Cisneros is a former Republican running as a Democrat for an open Orange County seat.
Democratic congressional candidate Gil Cisneros speaks with reporters at Cal State Fullerton. Cisneros is a former Republican running as a Democrat for an open Orange County seat. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In the primaries, their opponents cast them as opportunists with dubious party loyalty. Now Democratic strategists hope their past affiliation can lure independents and Republicans who dislike the president and could help Rouda and Cisneros snatch a pair of once-solid GOP seats.

“Trump did very poorly in the suburbs,” said Tony Quinn, a longtime student of California demographics and political trends. “Ever since World War II, these were the areas where Republicans did best. Now we’ve seen an enormous shift in the last two years.”

He said that the trend had been a long time coming but that Trump hastened its arrival by tying the GOP’s fate to rural areas and small towns.

Quinn saw the political pedigree of Cisneros and Rouda as an advantage because the fastest-growing base in each district is not made up of Democrats, but independents who might be drawn to a candidate who seems less partisan.

Dr. Susan Skinner, a Newport Beach neurologist, and her 83-year-old mother, both lifelong Republicans, recently campaigned for Rouda.

“The party long ago left me,” Skinner said at a Rouda rally in Costa Mesa. “Just like a bad relationship, it takes a while to realize it’s gone bad.”

For her, the tipping point was a lack of logic she sees from Republicans on crucial issues.

“Here we got climate change,” she said. “You and I can see it a mile away. There’s no snow in the mountains anymore. It was 114 in Tustin this summer. The science is being thrown out the window.”

Democrat Harley Rouda appears at Huntington Beach Pier with members of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn., which endorsed him in his race against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher.
Democrat Harley Rouda appears at Huntington Beach Pier with members of the Orange County Professional Firefighters Assn., which endorsed him in his race against Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Skinner views Rouda as someone who will make compromises with the other side.

Cisneros is also pitching himself as a deal maker. He said he registered as a Republican in the Navy because the party supported a strong military but re-registered as a Democrat three years ago, after a short time as an independent.

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“I’m just like, this is the party of Lincoln, the party that was created out of the abolitionist movement,” he said. “And it’s really going in the direction that people like me are feeling more and more unwelcome. And I don’t want to be part of that anymore.”

Cisneros said his positions on issues have not budged. His support for strong gun laws grew out of the fact that his grandfather, a Torrance shopkeeper, was robbed and killed at gunpoint. Seeing his father travel to Mexico to buy diabetes medication because it’s cheaper there drove his desire to ensure affordable healthcare. And having friends and acquaintances who benefited from Reagan’s amnesty laws shaped his belief in the need for immigration reform.

“Look, the same things I believe in now, I believed in back then. I’m not really focused on the party label,” Cisneros said. “To me, it’s about serving the country and doing what’s right.”

Cisneros was a shipping manager for Frito-Lay living in Pico Rivera when he and his wife hit the lottery jackpot in 2010. They have since moved to Yorba Linda and became prolific political donors and philanthropists dedicated mostly to education initiatives for underprivileged youth.

When Hillary Clinton won the district by 8 percentage points, Cisneros and other Democrats saw an opening.

Analysts consider the Cisneros and Rouda contests — along with Republican incumbent Mimi Walters’ race in inland Orange County — too close to call.

Though Cisneros came to the Democratic Party from a working-class, military background, Rouda arrived from more rarefied environs. (A longtime neighbor in his gated Laguna Beach community was Warren Buffett.)

Democrat Gil Cisneros, center, candidate for the 39th Congressional District, speaks to George Lin, left, and Donna Freedman at a meet-and-greet in Rowland Heights.
Democrat Gil Cisneros, center, candidate for the 39th Congressional District, speaks to George Lin, left, and Donna Freedman at a meet-and-greet in Rowland Heights. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

He grew up outside Columbus, Ohio, in a Republican household. His father, who owned a regional real estate empire, was “pro-business,” Rouda said, but his parents also supported protecting the environment and a woman’s right to abortion.

“The difference between their Democratic friends was very narrow,” he said. People then didn’t “stop socializing because of their political beliefs.”

Rouda registered as a Republican in 1980 when he was 18 and switched to no party preference in 1997, he said, in part because of the combative direction House Speaker Newt Gingrich was taking the party. “I feel like we’re still feeling the effects of Newt Gingrich’s reign of terror, of creating the polarization we see today, the weaponization of politics.”

Rouda continued to donate to Republican candidates, mostly in Ohio, including a $1,000 donation to Gov. John Kasich’s 2016 presidential bid. He says the donations made sense for his business, and Kasich is a family friend.

“I disagree with John on a lot of social issues,” he said. “But I also recognize he’s willing to fight for what he believes, but he’s also going to reach across the aisle to get the work of the country done.”

Rouda changed his party preference to Democrat in February 2017, after 20 years as an independent, and began donating to Democratic political action committees and candidates, according to federal election records. In this year’s primary, an opponent referred to him as “Recent Republican.”

Now Republicans are calling him out in ads as a “radical” and “too extreme” to represent Orange County, mainly on the issue of immigration.

Rouda said he supports a larger immigration reform that would include beefed-up border security and a pathway to citizenship for those brought to the country illegally as children. But he gave fodder to Rohrabacher when he said at a primary debate — answering a question about healthcare for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally — that he supported Medicare for “all residents.” His campaign spokesman said Tuesday that he meant all legal residents.

Rouda vows — like Cisneros and other Democratic candidates in Orange County — to work with Republicans. “I’m looking for common ground,” he said. “Most Americans are between the 20-yard lines, socially progressive, fiscally conservative.”

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Even though Rouda’s district still leans strongly Republican, with flush conservative strongholds like Newport Beach, Clinton beat Trump there by a percentage point, giving Democrats their best hope of taking the seat. And with an ongoing investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, Rohrabacher’s ties to President Vladimir Putin have become a liability like never before.

Rouda, who has raised more than twice as much money as Rohrabacher, is hammering those ties in ads, along with the incumbent’s support of oil drilling off the coast and denial of climate change. Rouda says he’s going after Republican voters “who’ve said is enough is enough.”

Though Rohrabacher’s 48th District contains the glamorous part of Orange County — giving the world the television shows “The O.C.” and “Laguna Beach” — the 39th District has its own wealthy pockets in the dry grass hills of Yorba Linda, Brea and Diamond Bar, as well as working-class apartment blocks and middle-class ranch homes in the flats down to the Santa Ana River.

There, Cisneros faces a tougher challenge against Kim, a Korean American immigrant who reflects the area’s increasing diversity and has tried to keep a distance from Trump.

On a Sunday morning, Donna Freedman, a Rowland Heights Republican, hosted a meet-and-greet for Cisneros. Over doughnut holes and coffee, she explained that her father, another die-hard Republican, hosted a similar event weeks before.

“He’s very into Trump and the Republicans, but for the first time in his life, he’s going to vote Democrat and he supports Gil,” Freedman told the crowd. She said she was sold on Cisneros when she saw his dedication to education.

Cisneros introduced himself by talking about his military service and the educational opportunities it opened up. Then he started criticizing how “Donald Trump and the Republicans have their hands in the pockets … of special interests and the corporations.”

After the speech, physician George Lin approached Cisneros to ask him about attack ads during the primary that painted him as conservative. “Is that true?” asked Lin, a registered Democrat.

Cisneros ticked off the policies he says he’s supported: immigration reform, education funding, “common sense” gun laws. “I mean, these are the things I’ve always fought for,” he said.

“I’m not an ultra-conservative,” he said.

Cisneros didn’t mention his status as a former Republican.

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