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Multiple GOP candidates for O.C. supervisors seat could split the Republican vote in March 9 election

State Sen. John Moorlach at a Vanguard University event in February.
Former State Sen. John Moorlach, seen at Vanguard University in February, is endorsed by Orange County Republicans in the March 9 race for a Board of Supervisors seat. But two other GOP contenders could draw away votes.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

A March 9 special election to fill an open seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors is heating up, with five candidates having qualified to run by the Jan. 25 filing deadline.

But the real battle could be between three Republican contenders whose campaigns are already clashing as they seek endorsements that threaten to split the GOP vote.

Former state Sen. John Moorlach — who previously served as a 2nd District supervisor from 2006 to 2015 — secured the backing of the Republican Party of Orange County more than a month before outgoing supervisor Michelle Steel retired and was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives.

“John Moorlach is an experienced and principled legislator who has the experience Orange County needs to address our most pressing issues,” said party Chairman Fred Whitaker in a Dec. 1 release. “The nature of a special election gives us a shortened campaign cycle to unite Republicans and execute a winning campaign strategy.”

Although Moorlach lost his senatorial reelection bid to challenger Dave Min in the Nov. 3 election, he prevailed over Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley in the June primary. Having declared her candidacy in December, Foley stands poised as the Democratic front-runner in the supervisor race.

Whitaker acknowledged in the Republican Party endorsement the importance of maintaining dominance in the five-member board, which before Steel’s departure leaned conservative by 4-1.

“We have great respect for the other Republicans who have shown interest in this race,” he said. “[But] we must coalesce behind one Republican candidate to hold this critical seat. That Republican is John Moorlach.”

Although five other GOP candidates had expressed an interest in Steel’s seat — including Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill and Councilman Kevin Muldoon, Huntington Beach councilmen Erik Peterson and Mike Posey and Fountain Valley Mayor Michael Vo — O’Neill, Peterson and Posey ultimately backed out.

Despite Whitaker’s clearly worded shot across the bow, Vo and Muldoon opted to move forward in their candidacy, qualifying to run on Jan. 14 and Jan. 25, respectively. Republican Party officials were quick to attack the motives of the two candidates in a Jan. 26 follow-up statement, saying the candidates’ “selfishness” played into the hands of public service unions and political consultants.

“Every dollar given and every door walked for those campaigns works to elect Katrina Foley,” the statement read.

Randall Avila, executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County, maintained Friday Moorlach was the candidate most likely to succeed in the narrow 45-day special election campaign window.

He said the organization’s leaders sat down with four of the five other candidates before endorsing Moorlach and explained the importance of securing a win. The fifth candidate filed after the talks had been held, he clarified.

“They understood this was a time for us to unite under one candidate,” Avila said of the three who pulled out of the race. “Two of those Republican candidates felt differently and decided to run anyway.”

Muldoon said Friday he’d originally planned to run for office when Steel termed out in 2022. When she was elected to Congress, he talked things over with wife Heather and decided to throw his hat in the ring.

“There have been some candidates who have been around a lot longer, but I’m of the opinion voters are looking for a fresh face and new leadership,” the Newport Beach councilman said.

Having already campaigned for about a year, Muldoon said he’s secured endorsements from supervisors Andrew Do and Don Wagner, as well as former Supervisor Jim Silva. He said candidates weren’t given the opportunity to present their platforms to party officials for consideration.

“There was no opportunity to speak,” he said. “[The endorsement] was fast tracked and only one candidate was put forward by the body.”

Vo, who has also been endorsed by Do, rejected the party’s statement calling on Republicans not to support him and criticized what he called the “behind-closed-doors” approach to endorsing a “hand-picked” candidate.

“The O.C. GOP is under the impression that a certain candidate is owed this seat,” he said in a Jan. 26 statement. “If Republicans want to keep this seat in conservative hands, they should reject the candidacy of a recycled career politician.”

Vo went on to criticize the party as being fractured, disorganized and divisive.

Registration counts provided by the Orange County Registrar of Voters show Democrats have a 7.4% lead over Republicans, although 21% of voters are registered as having no party affiliation.

Avila said Friday party leaders are aware three conservative candidates on the same ballot could draw votes away from Moorlach but that the party will back who they believe will be the front-runner.

“It changes up our strategy a little bit, but it’s something we can overcome,” he said. “It’s going to come down to us mobilizing our voters — it’s really a turnout game.”

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