The blue wave is happening in Orange County, not Texas

Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, middle, took a House seat in the historically conservative south Orange County in 2018 and was re-elected in 2020 with 53.5% of the vote. Katie Porter For Congress/Courtesy

The backgrounds of Texas and Orange County, California, share two similarities: both historically conservative and both lacking diversity in large chunks of their jurisdiction.

Texas hasn’t punched a blue presidential ticket since 1976 when Jimmy Carter narrowly took the state with 51% of the vote. The Lone Star State hasn’t had a Democrat governor since Ann Richards in 1995 and hasn’t had a Democrat senator since Bob Krueger in 1993, an appointee of Richards. For many years, there has been talk of a political “blue wave” hitting Texas, but it has yet to metaphorically touch the Gulf of Mexico shores. 

“Even though we are seeing that, for example, Texas is becoming more ethnically diverse,” said Anthony Szczurek, a political science professor at Saddleback College, ”I think Georgia tells us that you also have to put a lot of actual work into registering voters. There’s still a huge voter deficit in terms of voter participation and also explicitly connecting with communities whose votes you’re seeking, rather than assuming that you have them.”

Orange County, however, is living the reality that has been prophesied for Texas by progressives nationwide the past few election cycles. Not everyone has noticed, but the Los Angeles suburb of 3 million people has geared their attention towards Democratic candidates.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first Democrat to get Orange County’s presidential vote since Roosevelt in 1936. At the 2018 midterms, Democrats flipped four congressional seats to complete a full sweep in the county. The blue trend continued in 2020 with Joe Biden’s 54% besting incumbent Trump’s 44%. 

The land that was dubbed as ‘where the Republicans go before they die’ by Ronald Reagan has officially shifted its political landscape to be less red and bluer. Looking up, the infamous ‘Orange curtain’ between historically conservative Orange County and the more progressive Los Angeles County is beginning to be ripped away from its rod. 

Although results in the county have been sudden in appearance, the process to get there has been slow and steady.

“I knocked on doors in Mission Viejo as a precinct captain for Michael Dukakis,” said Deborah Cunningham-Skurnik, director of the California Democratic Party’s Region 18. “People would barely open their door, like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a Democrat.’ Four years later, when I did the same thing in Mission Viejo for some new guy named Bill Clinton, people opened up their doors a little bit more.”

The shifting demographics of the county have served as a major catalyst for its political change. Between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, there was a 39.0% growth in Asian residents, 15.7% growth in Hispanic residents, and 6.5% growth in Black residents. 

A growth of diversity in Orange County since 2000 has been attributed to the county’s swing towards more blue politics. City of Irvine/Courtesy

“There’s been a demographic shift, specifically in Orange County, to where Orange County is now a majority-minority district, in which the majority of people are actually minorities or people of color,” Szczurek said. “White people, who usually skew more Republican or conservative, still remain the largest proportional group in terms of race…maybe about 40%.”

The Democratic Party has noticed the demographic shift in the area and has wasted no time reaching out to voters who would otherwise be left in the dark.

“I think more and more people started to relate to the Democratic Party’s message,” Cunningham-Skurnik said. “We’re for universal health care. We’re for workers’ rights. We’re for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and more encompassing of all people, rather than this one-sided, hypocritical, ‘we only care about the child when it’s a fetus, not after it’s born.’”

The GOP’s 2016 decision to buy into Trumpism and its ongoing support for his extreme actions have also served as factors for change. Much of the existing conservative population in Orange County was turned off by Trump’s politics.

“I think what changed things throughout Orange County was the election of Trump,” Cunningham-Skurnik said. “It was a type of politics that even a lot of Republicans couldn’t handle because he was divisive. He’s sexist, racist, a very angry, bitter, divisive man. Never in my lifetime would I say I would see someone who could do as much damage in such a short period of time as Trump did.”

While the Democrats have enjoyed a steady stream of success in Orange County since 2016, their work isn’t finished. The region is still considerably purple as Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel took two House seats in 2020. Trumpism isn’t forever, and should the GOP run a less outwardly ridiculous candidate in 2024, a tougher challenge may arise.

“What happened is more and more people didn’t want to be aligned with the Republican Party,” Cunningham-Skurnik said. “So they wouldn’t necessarily become Democrat, but they became no party preference.”

With the Democratic Party wanting to maintain their voter base and expand it further in areas like Texas, they should take notes on what has happened in Orange County since 2016. A shifting demographic is one thing, but actual outreach to those communities is often forgotten as a significant piece of the puzzle.