Orange County — despite its historical associations with famous conservatives of yore, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and John Wayne — has not been a Republican stronghold for years.
In 2016, headlines trumpeted that Hillary Clinton turned California’s Orange County blue during the presidential election. In 2018, my colleagues wrote that Democrats flipped four Orange County congressional seats, a sweep that turned “a Republican fortress” Democratic.
Of course, 2020 showed that those pronouncements may have been premature: The county chose President Joe Biden over former President Donald Trump, but two of those congressional districts returned to Republican control with the victories of Reps. Michelle Steel and Young Kim, both among the first three Korean American women in Congress.
Kim told me last year that her election represented a new direction for the Republican Party.
“This is not a Trump or Biden issue,” she said. “That’s how I’m going to work.”
Then came the recall election, offering political analysts a rare opportunity to take the temperature in key parts of California a year before the 2022 midterms. As my colleague Shane Goldmacher and I reported over the weekend, they were watching Orange County closely.
The region is no longer a wealthy, reliably conservative enclave, but a vision of the future of large suburban counties across the nation: increasingly diverse and politically complex — which makes it tantalizing to both major parties, who see the territory as up for grabs by candidates who run nuanced campaigns.
“In Orange County, if you run a cookie-cutter campaign, you are going to lose,” Jim Brulte, a former chairman of the California Republican Party who lives in San Juan Capistrano, told Shane.
Gov. Gavin Newsom depicted his fight to keep his job as a matter of life and death, as a battle for California’s progressive values against a Trumpian power grab. And as of Sept. 22, the vote in Orange County was 51.7% against the recall.
Voters I spoke with in Ladera Ranch, a very Republican bedroom community near San Juan Capistrano, told me they sensed the political makeup of their neighborhoods changing — although few discuss politics in person. Mostly, partisan fights have played out in Facebook groups.
Candice Carvalho, 42, a Democrat in Ladera Ranch who voted against the recall, said she and her neighbors were exhausted from the bitter partisan divides that for many defined the Trump presidency.
“I think that everyone’s had such a rough year and a half that I have this feeling that people want to — not reunite, but let’s kind of get back together,” she said. “Let’s just move forward.”
But how that weariness with partisanship will translate next year in House races depends on what lessons the Republican Party takes from the recall, analysts said.
Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat who was elected to her seat in the Irvine area in 2018 and won again in 2020, told me her victories had hinged on engaging voters of both parties on issues important to them.
“Until you have a sense of where the Republican Party is going to land in its values, with science and gender equality and fighting climate change,” she said, “it’s difficult to know at this point how you would best engage across party lines.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.