Orange County, which for decades held a reputation as the bastion of California conservatism, this year could see Republicans shut out of a congressional race for the first time.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez’s (D-Orange) decision to run for U.S. Senate has attracted eight candidates hoping to replace her in the House. Thanks to California’s relatively new top-two primary — and a crowded field of Republicans expected to split dwindling GOP votes — it’s likely the June 7 primary will leave voters with a choice between two Democrats: Lou Correa and Joe Dunn.
Both are former state legislators, and both were elected to those seats in part because of help from Sanchez. They have amassed more money than the rest of the candidates combined.
The pool of Democrats also includes Bao Nguyen, the Garden Grove mayor who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam.
The California Democratic Party has declined to endorse a candidate in this race, as has Sanchez. Already, more than $900,000 has been spent by these top three candidates and committees supporting them.
Among the Republicans running are Irvine City Councilwoman Lynn Schott; Bob Peterson, a commander with the Orange County Sheriff's Department; Rudy Gaona; and Louie Contreras. Gaona ran for Anaheim City Council in 2010, 2012 and 2013, and ran for the Orange County Board of Supervisors in 2014. Contreras ran for Congress as a Democrat a decade ago. Also running is Nancy Trinidad Marin, a therapist who switched her party from Democratic to run with no party preference.
In the 46th Congressional District, Democrats make up 47% of registered voters, compared with 27% Republicans and 22% with no party preference. It's the only Orange County congressional district where Democrats hold such an advantage.
The central Orange County seat — home to Disneyland — boasts an ethnically diverse population, with the Latino-heavy city of Santa Ana to the south and, to the east, a strip of Little Saigon, an enclave of Vietnamese Americans who make up 7% of registered voters.
"This is no longer the land of Reagan," said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University in Orange. Smoller says it's "all but certain" Dunn and Correa will face off in November because of their substantial edge in fundraising and name recognition.
In 1996, when Sanchez first defeated Rep. Robert "B-1 Bob" Dornan by less 1,000 votes, there were immediate charges from Republicans that the election had been thrown by illegal votes from noncitizens. The district was already predominantly Latino and Democratic, but Republicans were known for better turnout. Back then, the county was dominated by older, white voters who had settled after World War II, and were known for a specific brand of social conservatism. Over the years, Smoller said, those people have died or moved and been replaced with younger Asian and Latino immigrants.
"This is a district that in some ways is the story of Orange County," Smoller said, predicting the county will vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since it favored Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.
Two rounds of redistricting have since made this district safely Democratic. (Sanchez once paid a consultant $20,000 to help draw the lines in her favor, famously telling reporters in 2001, "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I usually spend $2 million every election.")
Even so, before voters approved the top-two primary system in 2010, Republican candidates could rely on at least advancing to November.
"It used to be that every party had their chance to have a nominee in the general election," said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger and former state Republican Party official who lives in Orange County.
The last Republican who faced Sanchez, Adam Nick, received just 18% of the vote in the June 2014 primary, and went on to lose by 20 points in November. District observers do not expect that to happen this time around, with two strong Democratic candidates and the split GOP field, not to mention a competitive Democratic presidential primary expected to boost turnout.
With that in mind, "it's even more of a longshot" that a Republican might advance, Fleischman said.
The same dynamic might play out at the top of the ticket, with Sanchez hoping to prevail and make it to a November ballot to challenge the Senate front-runner — fellow Democrat and state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris.
None of the five non-Democratic contenders have yet mounted strong campaigns, raising far less money. Only three have appeared at candidate forums and debates.
Schott does not live in the district. She says she thinks voters will respond to her "fresh" and "balanced" approach to issues, but has struggled to break $50,000 in fundraising, and has loaned herself $20,000.
Both Gaona and Contreras said in phone interviews they switched party affiliations because the Republican Party better aligns with their views, including opposition to abortion with few exceptions.
Neither has raised or spent any money, according to FEC records.
Contreras ran as a Democrat against Republican Rep. Jerry Lewis in 2006, winning 33% of the vote in the general election.
Peterson bills himself as "just an average guy" who overcame homelessness as a teenager to become a high-ranking sheriff's official. He's raised less than $14,000 as of March 31, spending almost none of it so far.
When a reporter called Marin's cellphone and identified herself, the woman who had answered hung up. Subsequent calls and texts went unanswered.
The California Republican Party hasn't endorsed a candidate or gotten involved in the race, choosing instead to spend money on more competitive contests. The National Republican Congressional Committee also is staying out.
Correa is painting himself as a middle-of-the-road consensus Democrat, while Dunn enjoys support from traditionally progressive circles. Nguyen is styling himself in the vein of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the candidate he has endorsed for president.
Correa, 58, says he is a "common-sense Democrat" whose ability to broker compromises served his constituents for the 18 years he was in office. He's raised more than $380,000 this cycle, much of it from corporate executives and PACs.
He has also benefited from more than $535,000 for ads and mailers in independent expenditures by the National Assn. of Realtors. The Latino Victory Fund, geared toward electing Latino politicians, has kicked in another $22,000 for phone banking.
"My views are shaped not by picking up the ideology or the principles of any one group, but I want to address the needs of my community," he said. "I'm driven by the needs of the constituents here."
Correa has been endorsed by Rep. Linda Sanchez of Whittier, the congresswoman's sister; Reps. Ted Lieu of Torrance and Tony Cardenas of Los Angeles; and the California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce PAC.
Dunn, who has backing from major labor unions such as the California Federation of Labor, SEIU and the California Teachers Assn., has said he is true progressive with a strong record to back it up.
He supports a federal $15 minimum wage and wants to relieve student loan debt for students and improve California's infrastructure. He's remained a competitive fundraiser, with more than $320,000 in contributions, mostly from attorneys and labor union PACs.
In an interview, Dunn, 57, called Correa a "career politician" and emphasized his own time as the CEO of the California Medical Assn. and executive director of the State Bar of California after leaving the Senate.
Dunn was fired from that job in 2014 over claims of misconduct. He filed a whistle-blower lawsuit, alleging the state bar had altered records to hide a backlog in complaints against attorneys and that he was fired in retaliation for raising the issue. Dunn said claims he misled the board of directors and spent money improperly are "not only unwarranted, they're false." His lawsuit was later dismissed in arbitration, but he was given the option of amending some of his complaint.
Both Dunn and Correa should be familiar to many voters in the district. They previously represented the 34th state Senate District in back-to-back terms. The district lines then mostly mirrored the 46th congressional seat they're running for today, including large swaths of Anaheim and Santa Ana and a portion of Garden Grove.
Nguyen, 35, has emphasized his compelling personal history as a Vietnamese refugee, including the fact that his mother fled Vietnam while she was eight months pregnant with him and gave birth in a Thai refugee camp. "For a poor kid like me to become mayor of my hometown and now be running for Congress is what the American dream is about," said Nguyen. "I want to make sure other kids have a fair shot, too," he said.
Nguyen has received endorsements from Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) and the powerful California Nurses Assn. He has only raised $119,948 and has spent about half that. In a phone interview, Nguyen called money in politics "legalized bribery," a phrase Sanders often uses on the campaign trail. He also called Dunn and Correa "establishment folks" who have done little to help Orange County in recent years.
Despite his fundraising lag, Nguyen could enjoy a boost in votes if the Vietnamese community turns out, given that its members make up 7% of voters and have been known to swing elections.
Correa knows this well: He lost a county supervisor election last year because of differences in turnout; voters in the Little Saigon enclave were shown to be twice as likely to vote than those in Santa Ana, where Correa had strong support from the Latino community. Vietnamese American Andrew Do, a Republican, won by 43 votes.
More than 40% of residents of the 46th district are foreign-born, and more than two-thirds of those are not citizens. Among registered voters, Latinos make up 45%, and Asian Americans make up 13%.
An early poll conducted for Correa's campaign showed him with a more than 20-point lead, and Nguyen with a slight advantage over Dunn. But Dunn proved his fundraising prowess in the five months since that poll was released.
"Identity politics will definitely play a role," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and former staffer for House Republicans. "A lot of what voters will know about these candidates is embedded in their name."
If it does end up being Dunn and Correa in the general election, Pitney predicts a competitive race.
"The candidates see it as a real opportunity because the district is so heavily Democratic," Pitney said. "Whoever wins is likely to be in there for a long time."
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