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In Conservative Orange County, Democrats Hope To Win Back California House Seats


Democrat Mike Levin is facing Republican Diane Harkey in the race to fill Rep. Darrell Issa's seat in California's 49th Congressional District. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Democrat Mike Levin is facing Republican Diane Harkey in the race to fill Rep. Darrell Issa's seat in California's 49th Congressional District. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

This story was reported on our election road trip to states across the country ahead of the 2018 midterms. Check out all of our election coverage.

Southern California is emerging as a political battleground ahead of the November midterms as Democrats are hoping to flip some of the region’s house seats in order to take control of Congress.

In Orange County alone, there are four House races that the Cook Political Report lists as competitive. All of those seats are currently held by Republicans in this traditionally conservative county, but President Trump’s low approval rating in the region is creating an opening for Democrats.

In the 39th district, Rep. Ed Royce is retiring after 25 years in office. The Republican running to replace him is 55-year-old Young Kim, one of his staffers, who if elected, will become the first Korean-American woman in Congress. Her district is two-thirds non-white.

“I worked in the district, throughout the entire 39th Congressional District, as a congressional staff,” Kim says. “This is the community I know. These are the people that I’m running to represent. This is personal to me.”

But her Democratic challenger, Gil Cisneros, a Latino and first-time political candidate who bankrolled his campaign with lottery winnings, hopes to turn the district blue. He says he wants to protect our borders, but he disagrees with Kim on the best way to do that.

“I want to protect the border. That’s one of the reasons I served in the military was defending our nation,” he says. “But we don’t need to do that by building a $30 billion wall that’s probably going to end up, when it’s done, costing $50 billion.”

Another prominent Republican is also leaving an open seat in California’s 49th district, which includes parts of southern Orange County and northern San Diego County.

After narrowly winning his last re-election, Rep. Darrell Issa is leaving the House to join the Trump administration as head of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. He has endorsed Republican Diane Harkey, a former state assemblywoman who currently serves on a state tax board, to replace him.

“Well, I’m running for Congress kind of to replace the dysfunction in Washington, D.C.,” she says. “I’ve worked in the legislature. I’ve also worked on the State Board of Equalization in very, very minority positions because I’m a Republican in a very, very Democrat state.”

Harkey is facing Democrat Mike Levin, an attorney and first-time candidate, who says he is running to stop the “consistent undermining of the Affordable Care Act” by Trump and Republicans.

“I see it, you know, [in] my travels throughout this district,” he says. “I speak with so many people who are one medical emergency away from not being able to pay their rent.” 

In the other two close races, incumbent Republicans are facing tough re-election races. In the 48th Congressional District, Dana Rohrabacher is facing backlash from Democrats who have labeled him “Putin’s favorite Congressman,” referencing the Russian president.

Rohrabacher has advocated for stronger ties with Moscow, and he once said Putin’s muscles were unbelievable.

“My constituents want us to work with Russia where we can, and American people want us to work where we can,” he says, “rather than this unrelenting hostility and push towards putting Russia and the United States in conflict.”

Rohrabacher’s challenger, businessman Harley Rouda, hopes to become to first Democrat to ever win the 48th district.

“We the people are going to wash across this country a blue wave for all of America,” Rouda said at a campaign rally.

And in the 45th district, Republican Rep. Mimi Walters is seeking a third term. She says the Republican Congress and the Trump administration have made strides on the economic front.

“I think that the American public has seen what Congress has accomplished,” she says. “Look at, more people today have more money in their pocket, jobs are being created, we have higher wages.”

Walters’ opponent, Democrat Katie Porter, touts endorsements from progressive Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, her former professor. She feels much differently about this administration’s economic policy.

“We have multinational corporations in this country that before this tax bill were paying zero,” Porter says. “And my opponent Mimi Walters voted for this tax bill, which is going to fall particularly heavily on families in her own district.”

Despite its conservative roots as the birthplace of former President Richard Nixon, Orange County went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, marking the first time that a Democrat won the county since President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But that doesn’t mean the region is turning blue for good, says Jodi Balma, a political science professor at Fullerton College in Orange County.

“First of all, we’re still a Republican county. We are becoming less Republican as old white guys die and as the young people are much more diverse,” she says. “So those demographics are shifting, but we went for Clinton because people didn’t like Trump.”

Democrats are feeling so confident about their prospects in the county that former President Obama visited last month for a campaign rally. He made the trip before the confirmation battle for now Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Outside a shopping center in Huntington Beach, Orange County voter Laurie Heade says she’s been trying to oust Republican members of Congress in her district for years, way before Kavanaugh was even in the picture.

“My opinion about him is a negative opinion, but no. He’s not influencing my vote,” she says. “My vote was already my vote prior to him.”

While Kavanaugh might not be changing peoples’ votes, Balma says his confirmation will likely motivate Democrats to show up at the polls.

“I think turnout is going to be really hot because of that,” she says. “I don’t know on the other side. I don’t know if Republicans who feel like the process was unfair to Kavanaugh, I don’t know if they’ll be galvanized.”

A recent poll by Berkeley IGS shows Orange County Democrats either tied with or beating their Republican opponents – sometimes by wide margins. Although in Orange County, a quarter of all voters have no party preference, according to the poll.

“I’m not voting party lines,” says Orange County voter Richard Lemaster. “I’m voting whoever’s going to represent the people. Not the politicians, not policy, not control, not power, not money. It’s all about the people. It’s all about us. Lower taxes, we earn our money. We work for our money. We want to keep our money.”

There are also people like Greg Diamond, who says he doesn’t know who represents him in Congress.

“Uh, I’m going to have to read up on about it before I can really say too much,” he says.

Balma says this isn’t unusual, adding that many voters may not know the candidates’ names.

“If you walk on the street, I think they won’t know,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of party affiliation that they’re going to go on. … Part of low voter turnout is satisfaction, that people are not roaming the streets with pitchforks and trying to get big changes.

Many Orange County residents are dissatisfied by high gas prices, Balma says, which are hovering around $4 per gallon. Voters across the state will have the opportunity to answer a question on the ballot next month that asks if they want to repeal the state’s new gas tax and vehicle fees.

Balma says that could awaken Orange County’s anti-tax Republican voters, which could make the road to a House takeover more difficult for Democrats. She says she’s skeptical of polls showing Democrats winning in Orange County and elsewhere.

“If it comes down to Orange County, I think the Democrats might be in trouble,” she says. “I don’t see the blue wave hitting this year.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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