Rep. Katie Porter

When Melahat Rafiei took over the Orange County Democratic Party as executive director in 2007, prospective candidates were not exactly lining up to launch campaigns.

“In the past, I was going down to the drugstore, to the grocery store, the market, looking for people to run for office,” Rafiei, now a political consultant and Democratic National Committee member, said. “Anyone! We just needed Democrats to run for office.”

The vibrant party that Democratic organizers have built today, however, would be unrecognizable to the Reagan acolytes who gave the sunny expanse between Los Angeles and San Diego its reputation for being a hotbed of evangelical fervor, NIMBY politics, and the defense industry. Now, the county is no longer red—it’s a purple suburb trending blue.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to carry the county since Franklin Roosevelt did in 1936. In 2018, Democrats flipped all four Republican-controlled congressional districts in the county, sending an entirely Democratic contingent of seven representatives to Congress. In 2019, the county registered more Democratic voters than Republicans for the first time in decades.

Then, in the November 2020 election, two of those newly Democrat-held House seats flipped back to Republican control. Gil Cisneros, the Democratic incumbent in California’s 39th district, and Harley Rouda, the Democrat representing the 48th district, lost their races by less than 10,000 votes. Those two congressional losses have become important data points in post-mortem election analysis, as politicians, journalists, and voters try and understand why Democrats lost House seats. It would be easy to learn the wrong lesson: That whatever the campaigns did in Orange County, it didn’t work and shouldn’t be replicated.

A closer examination of results, however, reveals that Democrats made gains up and down the ballot in the OC. At the top of the ticket, president-elect Joe Biden expanded on Clinton’s margin, carrying the county by nine points. Democrats now outpace Republicans in voter registration by nearly 40,000 voters in the county. They triumphed in down ballot races as well. Democrats in Orange County flipped two state Senate seats, nearly 20 local seats, and made massive inroads on city councils and school boards, where they either held or expanded their hold on every single board for which they fielded candidates. More Democrats than Republicans will now sit on Orange County school boards for the first time in history. The party added seats on 11 different city councils, taking new majorities in Irvine and Aliso Viejo, and expanded diversity in local government, such as with the election of the first majority-minority city council in Irvine and with the election of Farrah Khan, a Democrat who will be the city’s first Muslim mayor.

The source of those successes, local Democratic leaders say, is a years-long investment in party building: recruiting volunteers, registering voters, hosting events, and increasing the number and strength of Democratic candidates running for office. It’s not a flashy strategy, but it is one that Democrats in other districts trending purple could replicate.

“Democrats historically, because it’s Orange County, haven’t had a bench,” Rafiei said. “Before 2018, we were trying to get anybody to run. And now we’re building a bench.”

It’s that same commitment to party building that gives organizers confidence they will return Rouda and Cisneros’ seats to Democratic hands in 2022.

“We’ve seen what doesn’t work, and we’ve seen what’s possible now twice,” said Susie Shannon, a California progressive who serves as both a state delegate to the DNC and on the state party’s executive board. “It’s party building. It’s building a bench of candidates—elected officials at the local level—who can rise up to the congressional seats.”

Ada Briceño, who is chairwoman of the Orange County Democratic Party, has seen dramatic shifts in local politics since she first arrived in the county as a teenager in the early 1990s.

“I came to an Orange County where people like me weren’t very welcome,” Briceño, who immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua as a child, said. “It’s a different place today, and it’s rapidly changing.”

Once a hub for the defense and aerospace industries, 20th century Orange County was defined by its strong anti-communist sentiment, restrictive housing covenants, and conservative politics. But as jobs at tech firms have increasingly replaced military jobs, and the county, particularly the Los Angeles-adjacent North OC, has diversified, its Republican character has diminished considerably. Today, even “The Real Housewives of Orange County”—a reality television show created 15 years ago that centers on drama within a wealthy, mostly white, female friend group—features an outspoken Democrat in its cast.

While many of the region’s coastal towns remain overwhelmingly white and wealthy, an influx of Hispanic and Asian Americans, particularly people of Mexican, Korean, and Vietnamese descent, have shifted the balance of political power, though Asian Americans, and particularly Vietnamese Americans, can lean Republican. But non-Republican voters are not necessarily reliable Democrats—and that’s where party-building comes in.

Briceño’s background is in unions. As the co-president of Unite Here Local 11, she leads the effort to organize tens of thousands of mostly Latinx hotel workers—and she brings an organizer’s mentality to registering voters and building clubs of Democrats organized around a locality or identity that plan and execute local campaigns.

There was an “explosion” of interest in the clubs after Trump’s election, Briceño said, and the momentum has continued.

Since 2016, “We have seen our clubs double—the amount of clubs and the amount of people who are in clubs,” Briceño said. “We’re being thoughtful about building the structures of our party.”

Party membership has soared too. According to Briceño, the number of due-paying members has increased four-fold since 2016.

In practice, growing the party has come down to two critical steps—engaging in massive grassroots organizing and promoting collaboration between clubs and volunteers. The party employs both a bottom-up and top-down approach. The local club’s members will engage in postcard writing, door-knocking, making phone calls, and volunteering to help local candidates for each race. Briceño said the county party has been able to employ a successful collaborative approach from the water board race volunteers up to the congressional ones, so that anyone knocking on a door can discuss all of the Democratic candidates who will be on the ballot in any particular district.

“It’s easier to knock on a door in Huntington Beach and talk about our three candidates,” Briceño said as an example. “Every single club in that area, they were all talking about Harley Rouda [the House candidate], about the local candidates, and about the state Senate seat.”

While Rouda lost by less than 8,000 votes, Briceño credits the coordination among various campaigns with local successes, including Democratic wins in two of three open seats on the Huntington Beach City Council, and flipping the 37th state Senate district, where Huntington Beach is located, from a Republican incumbent to Democrat Dave Min.

Sandra Lowe, a political operative who coordinated Democrats’ 2018 strategy in California, said she made a concerted effort to hire local people to run campaigns in Orange County. She credited party leaders for actively courting votes and canvassing neighborhoods rather than naively relying on changing demographics to work in their favor over the past four years.

“There’s currently great leadership, and there has been a [history] of good, solid leaders of the Orange County Democratic Party, who have done party building, who have done registration,” Lowe said.

In 2022, Briceño says the goal is to recruit more volunteers and candidates—she said twice as many Democrats ran for local seats in 2020 than in 2018.

Describing the party as a “big tent,” she played down potential differences between moderates and progressives, saying that shared Democratic commitments on issues such as acquiring COVID-19 relief or tackling climate change—an important issue in coastal Orange County, even among Republicans—go a long way towards bringing voters in. The party has also launched targeted outreach programs dedicated to training and supporting women and Black politicians.

“It’s building our base, building our structures so we can attain those victories,” Briceño said. “If we would have had another 300 volunteers, could we have taken another 3 other races? 

The loss of Rouda and Cisneros’ congressional seats, while painful to organizers, is largely thanks to a perfect storm of circumstances that benefitted Democrats in 2018 and could not be replicated in 2020.

Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne, said growing anti-Trump sentiment, an influx of national cash and voter registration efforts and the presence of wildly unpopular incumbents such as Dana Rohrabacher in the 48th district and Darrell Issa in the 49th created a unique opportunity that Democrats effectively capitalized on in 2018, when Rouda and Cisneros won.

In 2020, circumstances changed.

“The Republicans really woke up and spent money,” Godwin says. The winning Republican challengers were armed with millions of dollars. Young Kim, who beat Cisneros in the 39th district, raised $5.3 million to Cisneros’ $3.78 million. Michelle Steel, Rouda’s Republican challenger, raised $5.6 million, edging out Rouda’s $5.4 million.

Additionally, Cisneros and Rouda’s districts are truly purple, if not red. At the same time, Katie Porter and Mike Levin, the other two Democrats who flipped House seats in Orange County in 2018, benefitted from the larger share of Democrats in their districts. Rouda’s pro-mask stance, for example, was controversial in his district, and Steel campaigned against it. On top of that, a number of hotly contested ballot measures and Trump’s presence on the ballot meant Republicans could more easily juice turnout.

Republicans also engaged in party-building that Democrats say their efforts were not strong enough on—outreach to Asian American voters.

Shannon, the DNC delegate, said the pandemic harmed Democrats’ efforts to get out the vote, particularly among immigrant groups, where the most effective outreach tactics involve face-to-face conversations. Democrats steered clear of in-person canvassing as COVID-19 rapidly spread this summer and fall, but Republicans continued to talk to voters in person.

“Our model as Democrats does rely fairly heavily on canvassing,” Shannon said. “And that was just lost in this. It was kind of a Republican playing field.”

Both Rafiei and Godwin suspect that Democrats won a smaller share of Asian American voters in 2020 than in 2018. Steel and Kim, the winning Republicans, are both Korean American women who ran in districts with significant Asian American populations. The Republican Party of Orange County has spent decades making inroads with Asian American voters, recruiting at naturalization ceremonies with materials in Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Rafiei also believes Proposition 16, which failed but would have restored affirmative action in hiring in California, convinced Asian Americans to vote—and vote Republican. While affirmative action remains a divisive concept among Asian Americans, some of the strongest opposition comes from Chinese Americans and older Asian Americans. Proponents of the proposition feel that insufficient outreach to Asian Americans may have sunk it.

A 2018 report found that 34 percent of Asian Americans in Orange County identify as independent. With such a large share of undecided voters, each party’s appeal, if targeted enough, can yield votes. Rafiei said Democratic outreach to Asian Americans has always been lacking, and a new strategy should be a top priority for 2022. She expects Democrats to highlight the anti-LGBTQ statements that Michelle Steel has made and engage Asian American communities between election cycles on the local issues that matter to them, from infrastructure to culturally-sensitive health care.

Despite noting areas for improvement, Democrats were confident that Rouda and Cisneros’ seats can be won back.

“Nothing’s really easy in Orange County,” Rafiei said. “Other than the weather, nothing is easy.”

As national Democrats attempt to understand their House losses, the down-ballot victories and 2020-specific challenges suggest that, at least in Orange County, the losses are a cause for contemplation rather than panic. By building on the party structures and bench that they have developed, Democrats can continue to expand their power—in this suburb and others.

“We had a saying in 2018 that Orange is the new blue, and I think it still is,” said Lowe, who coordinated the 2018 California Democratic strategy. “You’ve got to dust yourself off and get right back on the horse, and that’s what will happen. That will strengthen them for the next go.”  

Gabby Birenbaum

Gabby Birenbaum is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.