Orange to Blue

  • 08/23/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Flipping four Orange County seats could be crucial for Dems to retake the House

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

Four GOP-held House seats in Orange County—carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016—are top-tier targets for Democrats’ plans to retake the House this November, and begin to check Donald Trump’s reckless conduct. Winning them could be the key to preserving American democracy, and Harbor Area activists—some newly-minted—have been involved since soon after the 2016 election. But the next 10 weeks and change will be crucial.

“For your readers from the San Pedro and Long Beach area, I would tell them we need you,” said Rachel Potucek, communications director for the Democratic Party of Orange County. “If you’ve ever felt like there’s an opportunity to change history, now is that time… Now is the time to cross the Orange curtain. The Orange curtain is vanishing in front of our eyes, but it’s only going to happen if people come and help.”

Indivisible San Pedro was one of the earliest groups involved in making that happen. They’ve been meeting weekly since just after Trump’s inauguration, except for a biweekly stint this summer, phone bank organizer Peter Warren told Random Lengths News.

Before that, “We ran phone banks all through the primary season twice a week, in 2018, from January to June,” he said.

They started again recently.

“The effectiveness of phone banking from here is obvious,” Warren said. “You don’t need to spend the time in the car going back and forth, and the 310 area codes we have are not viewed as foreign.”

The strategy is simple.

“This is not like phone banking in the presidential year, you don’t need to do persuasion,” Warren said. “If you can turn out the vast majority of your presidential year voters, who are already your voters, and you already can identify that, that’s a win. This is not about finding Trump voters to change their mind.”

Like other Indivisible groups, they’ve engaged in a wide range of actions, letter writing, lobbying representatives, oh yes, and spelling out “R-E-S-I-S-T” on Trump’s golf course with 200 volunteers. “The pictures were publicized around the world,” Warren said. But it’s the more mundane activism inspired by that high-profile action that is going to be crucial now.

Swing Left, in contrast, is solely concerned with flipping control of the House. Steve Pierson was Swing Left’s Southern California field director during the primaries. Their early involvement made a huge difference.

“People started going out and knocking on doors way back in March and April 2017,” he said. “We were able to launch a field campaign that congressional races are not accustomed to. They just don’t have the resources to do that.”

This proved especially important when two incumbents dropped out—Darrell Issa and Ed Royce. Normally, that’s great news—incumbents are harder to beat—but with California’s jungle primary, there were fears that Republicans could shut Democrats out of getting on the November ballot.

“Fortunately we were able to prevent that from happening and it was, in my estimation due to the ground game,” Pierson said. “The turnout was really substantial for a mid-term primary,” up more than 100 percent in the local races over 2014.

Efforts to Swing Left

Gil Cisneros is the Democratic nominee to succeed Royce in CA-39, in North Orange County, and his field director, Chris Ward, started out as a Swing Left volunteer, self-described as “Steve’s right arm” in the early days. He went from volunteering 20 to 30 hours a week with Swing Left, to paid canvassing for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, to his current position.

“Just recently we had a canvas with 220 people,” he said. So now he’s building on foundations he helped to start laying a year-and- a-half ago.

Another nearby Democratic candidate is Harvey Rouda, running against Dana Rohrabacher in CA-48. It’s the only Orange County House race that the Yes We Can Democratic Club is focused on so far.

“We see that that race is scriptable,” club President Chris Robson said, “Particularly given Rohrabacher’s anti-LBGT comments, and his historic relationship and friendliness toward Russia. Those are   two main points that we would be hammering on.”

The other two Orange County Democratic candidates are Mike Levin running against Diane Harkey, an Issa protégé in CA-49, and Katie Porter a former student and protégé of Elizabeth Warren, running against Mimi Walters in CA-45. The latter “Has long been considered one of the toughest races for us to flip,” Potucek told Random Lengths News, with a double-digit margin last cycle. “But there was a poll just released yesterday, that shows that Katie Porter is within one point.”

All throughout Orange County, the partisan gap is vanishing.  “We went from 22 points in 1990 to a record low of 2.6 points in June,” Potucek said. The number of candidates seeking party endorsements has doubled since the most recent cycle, with increasing diversity.

“We have more women than ever, we have more people of color; we have more young people,” she said.
“We’re seeing a blue wave at the local level of people running for office to serve in their school boards to serve on city councils all over Orange County. There’s no safe area anymore.

“We’re running from the canyons to the coast, and from North County to South OC.”
“The level of activity now is unprecedented, I don’t think we’ve ever seen this level of volunteer interest and involvement, reaching out to us and us reaching out to others,” said Linda May, director of the Orange County Democrats’ grassroots organizing program. It’s breaking records in all kinds of ways.”
The shift is qualitative as well as quantitative. “Orange County is undergoing what we feel is a sea-change right now, a rapid shift to the left, “ Potucek said. “Our base is energized, active, organized, mobilizing, working hard.”

It’s a process Swing Left helped accelerate. “I feel like our organization sort of helps people figure out that there are a lot of secret Democrats in these districts.” Wade said, even in a place like Yorba Linda, home to the Nixon Library. “You get a street, and like every other house is a democratic household. But they think they’re all alone, to which a canvasser might reply, ‘Well, I just knocked on the doors of about seven people on your street who are Democrats, so you’d be surprised.’ Suddenly the neighborhood is firing up yard signs, even in conservative Yorba Linda. That’s been a pretty great thing to see.”

The Renewal of Civic Engagement

“The goal is for them to be the spokesperson for the Democratic Party in their own precincts,” May said. “But that also means a listener as well. We can go to our neighborhood organizers and say, ‘Take the temperature; find out what’s going on; what do they think about this or that?’”

May continued, “We have increasing skepticism and lack of trust with most sources of information,” she said. So the intent is to train folks to serve as a “trusted advisor,” someone politically informed and rooted in the community, who can get others politically engaged, over time. At the same time, this all takes place within the normal two-year election cycle. It’s an approach that’s meant to both win in November and keep building beyond then.

The civic engagement side never goes away, but it plays more of an underlying support role during election years.

“Our whole idea is to have an interpersonal relationship with each of the individual voters that we contact,” she said.
“In South County there’s a new group that emerged this past year called, OC Students for City Council,” Potucek said. “They’ve emerged out of the energy around the Parkland massacre.”

While they’re not directly involved in flipping the house, the presence of such young candidates running for office provides an important boost for increased youth participation and the agendas they’re running on help feed the broader growth of progressive political ideas countywide.

Jake Rybczyk is a co-founder of the group, along with Jackson Hinkle, both of whom are running for City Council in San Clemente. Hinkle, at 18, is already the founder of an international environmental group. They’ve also got candidates running in Costa Mesa, Mission Viejo, Buena Park and Fullerton, and hope to add more in the next few weeks, before registration closes.

“What inspired me to run was the inaction of the politicians that we currently have,” Rybczyk told Random Lengths. After the Parkland massacre, Rybczyk drafted a letter calling for a Town Hall with Darrell Issa, He gathered over 100 signatures in just two days. “I went up to his office, and his staff, it was evident that they didn’t even want to talk to me, and it was there that I realized I had to step up,” he said.

It’s that same spirit of stepping up that can be heard over and over again. A similar dynamic was seen in response to several OC cities decisions to sue California over Senate Bill 54, the “Sanctuary State” Bill, which basically ensures that immigrants can report crimes to the local police, without fear of being questioned about their immigration status.

“We saw an incredible organizing movement against those measures at the local level in each city where that was happening,” Potucek explained.

“We’ve seen a wave of candidates run for office this year, specifically, because of those attacks on SB 54.”
The overall impact is cumulative, significantly altering the political atmosphere and the kinds of candidates running. “We have more women than ever, we have more people of color, we have more young people, so this trend is shifting towards this more young active and engaged generation,” Potucek said. “That’s been very exciting.”

Still, Orange County has been a Republican stronghold for more than half a century.  To win these crucial four House seats this November, they’re going to need all the outside help they can get.
“Indivisible San Pedro had been leading phone banking to Orange County districts up into the primary, and the San Pedro Democratic Club have been joining them,” club President Carrie Scoville said. They were held at Ports O’ Call Restaurant, before the Port of Los Angeles shut it down. They’ve resumed at the Random Lengths News office, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays.

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