NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – July 31, 2018, was a Tuesday, which meant that constituents of Dana Rohrabacher, the Republican congressman from Orange County, were out protesting.
Until recently, the weekly demonstrations had been in front of his office, but for the summer, activists from Rohrabacher’s district, the 48th, are teaming up with those from the neighboring 45th, represented by Republican Mimi Walters. Fifty people met in a small park in Newport Beach, then stood with protest signs by the side of the road. They earned a surprising number of appreciative honks, given that Orange County was once at the very heart of the American right.
Bob Hartman, a 70-year-old who works in real estate, described watching the results of the 2016 election with his mother, a registered Republican who hated Donald Trump. “She was very much upset,” he said. “She died a few weeks later, not at all happy.”
Afterward, he got involved with the anti-Trump resistance group Indivisible, becoming an activist for the first time in his life. “It’s about someone being in the office that I think is one of the worst individuals to ever be there,” he said. Another demonstrator, Bethany Webb, 57, told me she’d cut back at work to devote more time to anti-Trump activism. “We’re going to flip this district!” she told me. “Yes, we are. I believe.”
A few years ago, this might have seemed fantastical. Since its creation in 1993, no Democrat has ever represented the 48th district. Hillary Clinton won it by 1.7 points in 2016, but Rohrabacher was re-elected by more than 16 points. But since 2016, Rohrabacher’s odd Russophilia has been thrown into high relief by the Russia investigation. Some of his constituents are up in arms by the prospect of oil drilling off their gorgeous coast. And the Republican has a formidable opponent in Harley Rouda, a strapping, square-jawed millionaire who won the Democratic primary in part thanks to Indivisible’s support.
A recent Monmouth University poll has Rouda up by 3 points. Last month, he told me, a rally for volunteers drew more than 1,000 people, most women. It had to be held on a football field.
Other parts of Orange County are also competitive. The Cook Political Report rates the 49th, which is represented by Darrell Issa, a Republican who is retiring, and includes parts of Orange and San Diego counties, as “Lean Democratic.” The 45th, where progressive law professor Katie Porter is running against Walters, seems more challenging for Democrats; Cook rates it as “Lean Republican.” But if even part of Orange County, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, goes blue, it will be a powerful symbol of political realignment.
The affluent seaside region, after all, used to be so far right that in 1968, Fortune Magazine called it “nut country.” In her book “Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right,” historian Lisa McGirr described how Orange County activists in the 1960s “organized study groups, opened ‘Freedom Forum’ bookstores, filled the rolls of the John Birch Society, entered school board races and worked within the Republican Party,” believing their very way of life was in danger.
Since then, the demographics of the region have changed, thanks to an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America. More significant, however, may be the demographic changes in the Republican Party. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon recently told Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman, “The Republican college-educated woman is done.” Unlike many things he says, this appears to be true. In one recent poll of House preferences, college-educated white women favored Democrats by a staggering 47 points. (College-educated white men favor Democrats as well, but by much smaller margins.) Thanks to the fear and revulsion Trump evokes, the intense suburban civic awakening is now happening on the Democratic side.
Whether this realignment will last is anyone’s guess. In the 48th, the move away from the Republican Party seems dependent on Trump. Rouda became a Democrat only last year; before that he was an independent. He donated $1,000 to John Kasich’s presidential campaign, though he told me this was because of their close personal friendship rather than ideological sympathy. “I’m a businessman, an attorney, who believes in being socially progressive and fiscally responsible,” he said.
Eventually, if the Democratic Party expands into affluent enclaves that were once dominated by conservatives, there may be tension between upscale centrist representatives and economic populists. But in a sign of how much the Democratic Party’s center of gravity has shifted leftward, Rouda supports a moderate version of Medicare for All, in which people below retirement age can choose to buy into the program. A decade ago, that would have been considered radical.
Besides, there’s no greater Democratic unifier than Trump. Rouda describes the fundamental issues in his race as “basic respect for the foundations and the institutions of our democracy, and basic decency.” If Democrats suddenly have a shot in Orange County, it’s because Trump has made basic decency a partisan position.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach her c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 NYT News Service