Back in the 1970s and 1980s — when California was still considered a red state — Orange County just south of Los Angeles was a hotbed of Republican politics. The late right-wing talk show host Wally George, who arguably helped pave the way for everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Fox News, launched his show “Hot Seat” in Orange Country in 1983 — and prominent Republicans, from President Ronald Reagan to President Richard Nixon, had a strong OC presence. But times have changed: California is now deep blue, and in an article for the Los Angeles Times, Seema Mehta and Melanie Mason report that Orange County now has a Democratic majority.
For Americans old enough to remember the California of 30 or 40 years ago, hearing Orange County described as mostly Democratic is downright shocking. But according to Mehta and Mason’s report, the county that “nurtured Ronald Reagan’s conservatism and is the resting place of Richard Nixon” is “now home to 547,458 registered Democrats, compared with 547,369 Republicans.”
Republicans carried California in every presidential election in the 1980s, but the state started leaning more Democratic after President Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. The last Republican who carried California in a presidential election was George H.W. Bush in 1988. And California became even more Democratic in the 2018 midterms.
Katerina Ioannides, who chairs the Orange County Young Democrats, believes that President Donald Trump is partly to blame for Orange County’s new Democratic majority. Ioannides told the Los Angeles Times, “Trump’s toxic rhetoric and exclusionary policies alienate women, Millennials, suburban voters, immigrants and people of color — critical components of the electorate in Orange County. The Republican Party’s platform no longer resonates in a rapidly diversifying, increasingly college-educated Orange County.”
Veteran political analyst Stu Rothenberg, senior editor at Inside Elections, told the Times that Orange County is a reflection of the GOP losing ground in “upscale suburbs with college-educated voters who have more suburban and cosmopolitan concerns.” Those voters, according to Rothenberg, “see the Republican Party as intolerant old white men.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, Los Angeles County had more than its share of GOP-friendly areas — from the San Fernando Valley to Glendale and Burbank to Beverly Hills. But it wasn’t as deep red as Orange County, which some of Los Angeles’ more liberal residents jokingly referred to as “Beyond the Orange Curtain.” And Mehta and Mason delve into Orange County’s history in their Times article, reporting that the John Birch Society once had “dozens of chapters in the county.” Orange County, they note, was “home to a large community of wealthy Republican businessmen” and was synonymous with actor John Wayne (one of Hollywood’s most outspoken conservatives). Orange County, Mehta and Mason recall, was where Reagan had his first political fundraiser in 1965 when he was running for governor of California.
Reed Galen, a former GOP strategist, told the Times that for Republicans of the past, “It was never a question of whether or not you would win Orange County. The idea that you could lose it wasn’t even on the books.”
But in 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton defeated Trump by almost 5% in Orange County — and two years later, OC was where Democrats flipped four GOP-held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mehta and Mason conclude their Times report by quoting Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. The political shift in Orange County and similar areas, according to Jillson, was “inevitable, but Trump brought it on more quickly.”