O.C. Voted Blue: Is the Identity of the GOP Here in Danger?

Illustration by Lara Meintjes

Editor’s note: After the 2018 midterm elections, Orange County for the first time in several generations has no Republican representatives in Congress. There are many theories about how or why this is. For a few local voices, take a look at this piece Orange Coast published in March of 2017:

There was a time not so long ago when calling yourself an Orange County Republican was a solid indicator of your culture and tastes, as reliable as saying you were a punk rock musician or a Dallas Cowboys fan or a professor of French literature.

Republicanism here was ironclad and precise: a defiant stars-and-stripes missile aimed at Eastern elites and their inclinations toward one-worldism; a ringing celebration of cowboy capitalism, limited government, entrepreneurial pluck, new technologies, and low taxes.

There were John Birch Society chapter meetings in living rooms, Orange County School of Anti-Communism meetings held by Walter Knott at his amusement park, and Wally George doing his “Hot Seat” show from Anaheim with the jingoistic shouting and the portrait of John Wayne on the wall. “We were considered to be the golden county,” says former party chairman Lois Lundberg. “We had it made back then.”

Every morning R.C. Hoiles gave the libertarian view a good airing in his paper, The Orange County Register, which didn’t believe in public libraries or even public roads. Every Sunday, parishioners went to a church—such as the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral—that emphasized the old-time religion of individual salvation. Every month a presidential candidate gave a fundraising plug in somebody’s Newport Beach home and tapped the county’s buttons like an ATM. If liberals sucked up to Hollywood to find their cash, then conservatives could find even better running money tucked behind bougainvillea-flanked gates in a 10-mile radius of Fashion Island. Not for nothing did Ronald Reagan call this place “where good Republicans go to die.”

Many in Orange County believed America was besieged from within—whether from communist infiltrators or liberal softies—and it had to be purged of foreign influences.

Times changed in the 1990s, and the tone had to change with it. The Cold War victory threw the defense economy off-track and removed the anticommunist raison d’etre for much of the GOP passion. The county’s Latino population went from about 15 percent in 1984 to 30 percent in 2000—enough that Loretta Sanchez was able to kick Robert “B-1 Bob” Dornan out of Congress in the 1996 election. The Register was getting a lot thinner, the state Republican Party had gone to dry cornhusks, and the John Birch Society had disappeared like fluoride into water.

But despite all that, the Orange County Republican identity still meant something tough, proud, and seemingly timeless, even in choppy waters. The statue of John Wayne stood inside the airport. And in 1990, Republicans held a 22-percentage-point registration advantage over the Democrats here.

Then last year Donald Trump took over the national party, the last numerical bulwarks failed, and the rock-solid identity started to go from a bit shaky to extremely confusing.

A look at the presidential map of California since 1940 shows Orange County as a stubborn maroon pebble lodged against the ocean, even as the regions around it gradually turned Democratic blue. As former Texas Gov. Rick Perry once put it, the Republican red county eventually became “a raspberry in a blueberry pie,” a bit lonely in its defiance against a statewide tectonic drift.

Until now. The election of 2016 was the first since 1936 when Orange County cast the majority of its votes to a Democratic presidential candidate: Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by more than 8 points here, which has changed the perception that this is the can’t-miss county for Republicans.

“Orange County was the pinnacle of the Republican brand,” says Orange-based political consultant Jimmy Camp. “There was a pride in conservatism that we had here, and that turned to embarrassment.”

Trump’s ascendance to the top of the ticket prompted Camp to resign from the Republican Party. “Donald Trump is a narcissistic, self-centered,unprincipled, miserable example of a human being,” he wrote in an announcement. “I have worked within my party to make it one not of ‘tolerance,’ but one of inclusion and opportunity regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality, or nation of origin, and Trump stands for none of these things.” Since that day, Camp says, he has attracted more business advising candidates than he can handle.

He noticed a telling detail in the fall: Most of the GOP campaign pamphlets, paper door-hangers, and other literature didn’t even mention Donald Trump, in stark contrast to the 2012 cycle in which Mitt Romney’s name was proudly displayed as the party’s standard-bearer. “Just about everybody running for office here didn’t even endorse Trump, and wouldn’t say who they were voting for,” Camp says.

What damaged Trump the most in Orange County—and the local Republican brand along with him—was the consistent and uncompromising anti-immigrant message that fired up his audiences at rallies, according to Chapman University political scientist Fred Smoller.

“This is not your grandfather’s Orange County, where people grew lima beans and never left,” Smoller says. “It is more cosmopolitan, with major corporations. A generation of anti-immigrant rhetoric cost Orange County Republicans dearly. They lost Hispanics, they lost the youth, they are losing the Vietnamese.”

Now the dominant tone of the national party—with talk of immigrant registries and concertina-wire walls on the Mexican border—is playing poorly in a county that is one-third Latino, one-fifth Asian, and less Anglo than at any time in the past 140 years.

“It used to be you’d see yard signs and mail ‘Vote for Republican Bob Dornan’ or whoever,” Smoller says. “But now with the branding of Trump, deep down people are embarrassed by that label. And that’s going to take a long time to change.”

While the national winds have changed with Trumpism, Orange County GOP chairman Fred Whitaker believes the essential identity of an Orange County Republican has not. “We stand for principles of limited government, low taxation, strong defense, free-market economy, traditional cultural influences,” he says. “Part of what binds a society together are strong families, which are therefore less dependent on government.”

Many of the new Orange County families are also immigrant families, says Republican Steven Choi, the former mayor of Irvine who won his race for state assembly. He then offered an unconventional explanation for the demographic shifts that have made elections rockier for the GOP: affordable housing. “When you build affordable housing, that means lower-income people move in,” he says—which means a bigger Democratic base.

“That was long-term social engineering by design,” he concludes, adding: “this is no longer the Orange Curtain.”

Trump fits into none of the conventional categories Republicans here might recognize. His personal life—the multiple marriages, the affairs, the casino riches, the boasting of grabbing women by their genitals—was repellent to many attendees of Calvary Chapel, Saddleback, Rock Harbor, and the other powerhouses of worship that form the Big Church core of the Republican base. His noises about setting new tariffs on imports also went against the free-market teachings that local libertarians and mainstream conservatives have touted for decades. The heads of Orange County old-timers likely explode at the thought of the Republican nominee possibly being helped by Kremlin black-ops. But many GOP voters didn’t seem to care.

One of Trump’s only appearances here—a boisterous April 28, 2016, rally in Costa Mesa—ended in a riot as protestors threw rocks and beer bottles and tried to flip a police car. Not even Barry Goldwater excited passions like this, and the spectacle turned the stomachs of many moderate Republicans.

Curt Pringle, the former mayor of Anaheim, said there was a good bit of private “Trump-shaming” among some Republicans who could not tolerate the man at the top of the ticket. “I see quite a lot of folks in the party not coming behind the nominee,” he says, leading to a rash of ticket-splitting: consistent votes for down-ballot Republicans, but a spot left blank at the top, or even a quiet vote for Clinton. Which for most was the first presidential vote for a Democrat they’d ever cast.

Lois Lundberg was not among them. At 88, she is a living legend of the county GOP. A former chairman and now chairman emeritus, she navigated many internecine conflicts that she never allowed to turn rancorous, heeding the old “11th Commandment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. Lundberg says she voted proudly for Trump, but she also acknowledges how the vitriol of the national discussion was a further chipping away of the old O.C. identity.

She notes the decline of national figures making fundraising appearances. “Now we’re not able to get the caliber of people we used to. There’s a lot of rich Republicans here still, but a lot of people give up when they’re not winning.”

For local GOP chairman Whitaker, one of the lasting legacies of the 2016 race might be the need for the Orange County Republican Party to once again become an innovator to the nation—in this case, to show fellow conservatives that hyping up divisive rhetoric might have worked in this election, but it will not lead to long-term victories.

“We’re a nation of immigrants, and we can’t be a party that’s anti-immigrant,” he says. “We can be on the forefront for the party and figure out how our ideological pillars work for the Latino community. That’s part of the place we’re able to lead in Orange County: to make sure the message and identification work for people no matter where they come from. Tone matters. And some people might not have gotten that message.”

But all is not so gloomy for the Orange County GOP, as the old electoral bedrock still runs deep. City halls around the county remain their strongholds. There are firm Republican majorities on the city councils of Anaheim, Orange, and Irvine, plus just about every city to the south. All told, that means 139 city council members out of a total of 183 are Republicans. They will set policy on pension reform, land use, property rights, and dozens of other issues close to the hearts of conservatives. Walking into some of these council chambers can make a visitor feel as though the 1950s never ended, in the Anglo character of the officials as well as their Mayberry demeanor. All five members of the Board of Supervisors are Republican, as are dozens of board members of school and water districts. Ideological geographies are built from the bottom up, and the top winds of a presidential campaign can change in four years.

“Orange County is still a symbol among Republicans that’s more oriented toward freedom and less toward government,” says former chairman Scott Baugh. “That never went away.”

For Republican political consultant and blogger Chris Nguyen, the crashing irony of 2016 is not how much Orange County changed but how much the national sentiment seemed to be opposed to what the county has become since the days of citrus farms, drive-in chapels, and living-room crusades against the United Nations. It is now the sixth most-populous county in the nation with major universities, nearly a dozen Fortune 1,000 corporations, a GDP almost as big as Finland’s, and a business class that doesn’t want to see radical disruptions, wild reinventions of government, or “shaking up Washington.”

“In some ways, Orange County has become the establishment,” Nguyen says. “We have become the global elite, and we’re now far more oriented toward the Pacific Rim. You might say that Donald Trump was running against Orange County. We now have more in common with Los Angeles than with farmers in the Midwest.”

And therein, another irony. Trump’s core message of “Make America Great Again” had a lot in common with the muscular nostalgia that helped fuel the most passionate elements of historic Orange County Republicanism. Both these movements felt the heart and soul of the nation was being sold out by distant elites, and that it would take an act of heroism by ordinary people to reclaim the lost glory of Old Glory.

It’s as though Trump voters across the nation have discovered the old Orange County tune with the speakers jacked up to full volume: America is under siege, the enemy is within, and it takes a strong dose of patriotic medicine to make everything whole again.

Only by this time, the county itself has moved on from the music it helped to compose.

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