Commentary: Grassroots efforts led Democrats to victory in once-conservative O.C.

U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) talks to supporters at her campaign office in Irvine on election night. She was defeated in her bid for reelection.
(Photo by Chris Carlson / Associated Press)

The midterm election cycle has seen a lot of wave metaphors, but the best one is “tsunami.” A tsunami is nothing like a wave. It rises silently, building itself up at sea, until a crushing wall of water suddenly, permanently, changes the landscape.

It’s been weeks since Election Day, and the world is just starting to see the Democratic Party’s tsunami on the California coast. Orange County, famously known as Reagan Country and home to the Richard Nixon Richard Presidential Library and Museum, experienced breathtaking gains. For the first time in 78 years, every Orange County congressional representative will be a Democrat.

Some of Orange County’s city councils and school boards will be helmed by the first women, Latinos, Millennials, LGBT community members, Muslims and STEM professionals to have ever occupied these elected positions. These local victories are no less important. Historically, some of the most controversial legislative attacks on vulnerable communities spawn in city halls and school districts.


The tsunami didn’t happen by accident. It was the earned result of creative, bold, and consistent work at every level of politics. It started like most tsunamis do — with an earthquake. For millions of people, the election of Donald Trump was a shock. It became obvious that Trump’s ascendancy was, in large part, a failure of the Republican Party and would require collective effort to overcome.

The tsunami’s groundswell began out at sea from the bottom up, in living rooms and rallies. In Orange County, new grassroots organizations took shape, turning like-minded strangers into lifelong friends. The rallying cry was simple: Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

Republican Party leaders missed these early warning signs. They laughed off grassroots groups like Indivisible as “radical,” even though many Indivisible members are actually independents and Republicans who feel abandoned by the Republican Party.

The grassroots groundswell was matched by new levels of support from established political and independent organizations.

Orange County’s Democratic Clubs blossomed and restructured into year-round campaigns, making tens of thousands of voter contacts through canvassing, phone banking, and postcard parties. Canyon Democrats, a local club in the 45th Congressional District, increased its fundraising 15-fold in less than a year, while its Republican representative, Mimi Walters of Irvine, shrugged off financial offers from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The grassroots groundswell was matched by new levels of support from established political and independent organizations who helped push this wall of water to shore.

The Democratic Party of Orange County endorsed nearly twice as many local candidates as in the previous cycle. We updated staff structures and endorsement procedures, hosted candidate training, mobilized a new grassroots organizing program and conducted our largest voter communications effort in recent memory with mail, texting, canvassing and calls.

On the campaign trail, these fundamentally different views about civic values became stark. While Republicans attacked America’s women, sciences, schools, immigrants, free elections and free press, Democratic candidates stood up for all of us. Democrats championed solutions for healthcare and economic opportunity. They spoke about protecting our environment, protecting our schools from gun violence and improving affordability and quality of life.

Republican leaders ignored the tsunami until it was too late. For Democrats, our vision has always been 20/20. We believe an inclusive, solution-focused approach serves all of us best. We’re ready for the work ahead.

Fran Sdao chairs the Democratic Party of Orange County.