Orange County’s political parties are in a period of change, explains Jodi Balma, political science department co-coordinator and professor at Fullerton College.
The 2022 Midterm Election demonstrated just how purple the county is, Balma says, noting that Republicans lost majority control of the Orange County Board of Supervisors for the first time in decades.
Last year’s redistricting throughout the state also brought about some political changes that, as Balma explains, made it more difficult to predict the outcome of many races going into the Nov. 8 election.
“It’s always hard to adjust to the new districts and it’s hard to know what the outcome will be,” Balma says. “Now, we have this as our baseline for the next 10 years to see how the demographics change and how the party shift changes, that just changes organically with the demographics.”
California voters in the midterms saw redrawn district lines following the 2020 census. The redistricting split State Senate District 36—previously State Sen. Patricia Bates’ district—into two new districts, with the 36th covering several coastal cities like Dana Point and San Clemente and the 38th representing San Juan Capistrano and Rancho Mission Viejo.
Amid those changes, the local state and congressional races in South Orange County were close—within a 10% margin. However, the race for the 36th State Senate seat told a slightly different story. The Republican candidate won with a 13.8% lead despite the Democratic candidate carrying most votes in Los Angeles County’s stretch of the district.
And though the county itself has turned from red to purple in recent elections, South Orange County showed that Republicans have maintained their stronghold in the area. In the races where districts covered portions of Orange County and either San Diego or Los Angeles Counties, it was the GOP candidates who earned the most support from South OC voters.
For those Republicans running in the 49th Congressional and 38th State Senate races, however, those gains weren’t enough to overcome their Democratic opponents who saw a majority of their votes from North San Diego County.
Voter turnout in both Orange and San Diego Counties were similar, with 54.7% and 54.2% of eligible voters casting ballots in each respective county. Election data from the two counties show though that significantly more votes were cast in San Diego County for the 49th Congressional race.
In comparison to Orange County and San Diego County, Los Angeles County had a relatively low voter turnout rate at 43.65%.
In the race for the 38th State Senate District, which covers cities in both Orange and San Diego Counties, a total of 106,820 votes were cast on the Orange County side of the line and 258,753 votes were cast in San Diego.
Republican Matt Gunderson saw most of the voters, 61,023, turn out for him in Orange County. But it was voters in San Diego County who carried Democrat Catherine Blakespear, Encinitas’ former mayor, to her victory, receiving 145,195 votes on that side of the 38th District.
In the 36th State Senate District, which represents cities in both Orange and Los Angeles Counties, a total of 323,998 and 21,604 votes were cast, respectively.
Republican Janet Nguyen, a tenured California lawmaker who served in both the State Senate and State Assembly, received most of the votes in Orange County with 57.71%. Democrat Kim Carr, a Huntington Beach councilmember, took home a majority of the votes in Los Angeles County with 55.95%.
Balma notes that incumbents did much better than newcomers, as they generally do, though she commented that this was even the case where incumbents’ districts covered largely new areas of constituents.
“We certainly know that there’s an incumbent advantage, with name recognition, with fundraising,” Balma says. “It’s interesting to see that their incumbency also is an advantage even when most of the voters are new to that person.”
“Janet Nguyen, as an incumbent, has a big advantage. Kim Carr, (is) relatively unknown outside of Huntington Beach, which is a big city, but the district is clearly much bigger,” Balma adds. “So, Janet Nguyen’s name recognition, not only from being a part of the senate but also Board of Supervisors certainly helped.”
A total of 226,343 votes were cast in the race to represent Orange County’s Fifth Supervisorial District, which covers Costa Mesa, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Dana Point, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and part of Irvine.
Based on a review of the Orange County Registrar of Voters’ election data, the majority of voters in Aliso Viejo, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods supported incumbent Supervisor Katrina Foley. Bates, a former board supervisor and state senator, received support from a majority of voters in Dana Point, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Newport Beach, San Clemente and San Juan.
Though Foley won the seat, Balma notes that the county’s redistricting put Foley at a disadvantage in this year’s race.
“I think to her credit, she collaborated with many other local candidates,” Balma says, noting that Foley canvased with Irvine City Council candidate Kathleen Treseder and U.S. Rep. Katie Porter3, who both won their respective races.
Both the Republican Party of Orange County and Democratic Party of Orange County are in a period of transition, Balma says, with the Republican Party losing control of the majority on the OC Board of Supervisors.
“To use a sports metaphor, there is a difference in playing offence and defense, and for so long the Republican Party of Orange County was the dominant party in the majority, and that is shifting and transitioning,” Balma says.
“The Democratic Party is having to figure out how to be a majority party in a lot of these places,” Balma continues. “And it’s a purple county. By no means does one party dominate, there are pockets of blue that the Democrats are going to win easily and pockets of red that the Republicans are going to win.”
Balma adds that both parties are going to have to learn to be competitive across the county during this period of transition.
Neither the Democratic Party of Orange County nor the Republican Party of Orange County responded to requests for comment as of this posting.
As for the race for the 49th Congressional District, a total of 103,921 votes were cast on Orange County’s side and 187,814 were cast in San Diego County.
The 49th District includes the cities of Carlsbad, Dana Point, Encinitas, Laguna Niguel, Oceanside, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano and Vista, among others in South Orange County and North San Diego County.
Brian Maryott, a Republican and former San Juan Capistrano councilmember, received most of the votes in Orange County with 54.96%, while incumbent Rep. Mike Levin took home the majority of votes in San Diego County with 56.83%.
Levin and Maryott had faced each other for the seat in 2020, when Levin won the district with 53.1% of the overall vote. Levin won his bid for reelection this year with a slightly narrower margin, earning 52.6% of the overall vote.
Despite the tighter race, Eric Mee, Levin’s former communication director, recently said in an email that “voters saw Rep. Levin delivering results on their priorities and focusing on solutions to the biggest challenges facing our country.”
“That’s why he won this race and that’s the work he’ll continue to do in Congress,” Mee says.
Maryott’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Balma notes that Maryott’s name recognition with voters, having ran previously, may have helped to thin that gap.
“Maryott is a known candidate, and certainly did well in Orange County, although it wasn’t enough to carry the district,” Balma says. “So, I don’t know that it means he’s getting closer, I think that people who voted for Levin stayed home in this election.”
GETTING OUT THE VOTE
It was that voter fatigue, Balma says, that likely affected voter turnout this year.
Statewide, 50.8% of California’s registered voters turned out to vote in November’s election, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
This year’s turnout marked the third lowest for the state in 20 years. The 2014 midterm race had the lowest voter turnout at 42.2% and the 2002 midterm race had the second lowest voter turnout at 50.57%.
Orange County experienced relatively lower voter turnout this year compared to previous elections over the same period. Voter turnout was only lower in the 2014, 2006 and 2002 Midterm Elections.
Balma says that the gubernatorial race in California was not a draw for voters to cast their ballots in this year’s election.
“Turnout in 2022 was lower than 2018,” Balma says. “Not necessarily lower with Republicans—Republicans really turnout out to vote and Republicans have a higher voter turnout than Democrats tend to in Midterm Elections.”
According to the OC Registrar, 392,931 votes were cast by the county’s registered Republicans in November, 25,801 more than Democrats. About 228,220 of the total ballots cast came from registered American Independents, Green Party, Libertarians, Peace and Freedom Party and those registered no-party preference.
Midterm Elections tend to see a lower voter turnout compared to Presidential Elections. In 2018, there was a 71% voter turnout, a 45% voter turnout in 2014, a 55.4 % turnout in 2010, a 50.5% turnout in 2006, and a 51% voter turnout in 2002—all midterms.
Balma says that while California is good at registering young adults to vote, the state has not been effective at engaging young people to vote.
“They are the largest voter bloc of registered voters, however, we haven’t done a good job informing and engaging them to actually vote,” Balma says. “They’re the lowest in terms of voter turnout.”
“So that said, there’s a disconnect between getting them to vote, motor-voter, civic engagement, all of those sorts of things, and actually convincing them that their vote matters and there’s a difference between candidates,” Balma continues.
One of the interesting things in this year’s election, Balma notes, was how Orange County voters cast their ballots.
Of the 994,227 ballots cast in this year’s election in Orange County, 164,065 ballots were returned at a voting center and 830,162 were cast by mail.
“We’ve only had a couple of elections where everybody got a ballot in the mail,” Balma says. “That’s only been since March 2020 for Orange County, and of course the pandemic forced everybody in the state to get a ballot by mal in November 2020.”
Balma notes that since there have only been a handful of elections so far where all registered voters receive a vote-by-mail ballot, it’s hard to draw long-term conclusions.
“But what we seem to see is that Donald Trump, spending most of 2020 telling people not to vote by mail, was effective for Republicans. They vote in person,” Balma says. “And so those vote center voters are still traditionally Republicans.”
It also rained on Election Day in Southern California, which Balma acknowledges may have been a barrier to some who planned to vote in person.
However, Balma adds that while Democrats tend to vote by mail, they also tend to procrastinate voting.
“So, when they put the ballot in the mail on Election Day, it means it takes a week to count,” Balma says. “So, we no longer have an Election Day, we have a deadline to turn in a ballot.”
For those who are frustrated with how long it takes to count and certify the votes, Balma recommends that voters cast or mail their ballot early, noting that the verification process takes a while.
“It’s very good that it takes a long time, because it means that our verification process is protecting the integrity of the vote,” Balma says. “Orange County Register of Voters has an amazing system for ballot integrity, making sure that I didn’t already vote, making sure that all of that is secure, but it means that it takes a long time.”
Orange County Registrar of Voters Bob Page on Dec. 2 certified the results from last month’s election with Orange County Board of Supervisors voting to receive and file the certified results on Dec. 6.
“I want to thank the more than 1,600 members of the Orange County community who joined our Registrar of Voters team for this election,” Page had said in a media release. “Together we helped about 1 million voters in the county successfully exercise their right to vote in an accessible, fair, accurate, secure and transparent election.”
The California Secretary of State certified results for statewide elections on Dec. 16.