In Orange County, no place has been more of a pandemic battleground than Huntington Beach.
Some residents have joined pro-Trump and anti-mask rallies on the beach. Others were appalled.
Mayor Pro Tem Tito Ortiz refused to wear a mask at city council meetings – until he stepped down, paving the way for a black woman to replace him and overthrow the council’s Democratic majority.
Last month’s recall election cemented the city’s reality as being more ideologically mixed than its reputation for gaudy right-wing gestures would suggest.
The city voted to recall Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, but not by a landslide.
Although still more conservative than the county as a whole, Huntington Beach has become increasingly ethnically and politically diverse.
The same is true of other traditionally dark red enclaves, which are less likely than in the past to support a cause like the governor’s recall largely on his pandemic performance.
In the near future, Orange County could continue to waver on either side of the political divide, such as when two US House seats that turned blue in 2018 turned red again two years later.
OC opposed the 52% to 48% recall – a narrower margin than Newsom’s landslide statewide victory, but still a significant result in the former Conservative stronghold.
Experts say the long-term trend for the OC is leaning towards blue, with the politicization of the pandemic accelerating the move away from the Republican Party.
The battles for masking and vaccines have prompted some conservative and science-convinced voters to back Newsom – possibly some of the same voters, alienated by the insulting and disloyal tactics of Donald Trump, which helped the county break over for Hillary Clinton, then Joe Biden four years later.
“There is this noisy minority that comes out and wants to portray the county as still being very conservative, with the anti-vaxxers and some of the white supremacist ideas, but that’s not the case,” said Ada Briceño, president. from the Orange County Democratic Party.
Still, pro-recall sentiment extended beyond the far-right fringes.
The county, long a wealthy source of Republican income, was a notable fundraising link. The enormous cost to small businesses of Newsom’s pandemic shutdowns resonated strongly.
An Irvine-based LLC called Prov. 3: 9 – a reference to the Bible verse that says “Honor the Lord with your wealth” – was a major contributor to the recall effort, raising $ 500,000.
The Orange County Lincoln Club donated nearly $ 300,000, and many individual donors contributed to statewide pro-recall coffers that totaled more than $ 11 million.
Jim Brulte, a former president of the state’s Republican Party who lives in San Juan Capistrano, said OC is still “the mother ship” of fundraising.
Republican candidates like Larry Elder have rallied their base with campaign stops at OC, including Little Saigon, where many Vietnamese immigrants have strong anti-Communist views that have translated into enthusiastic support for Trump.
But contrary to the public image of Orange County as the heart of COVID-19 denial, about 83% of residents believe the coronavirus is a real threat, according to a recent Chapman University survey. Almost three-quarters said they would support a national mask mandate.
“We are no longer your grandfather’s Orange County,” said Fred Smoller, professor of political science at Chapman University, who co-created the annual survey with his colleague Michael Moodian. “The county has changed, and some people have woken up to it, and some haven’t. “
Longtime Republican Dan Ardell did not hesitate to vote against the recall.
He is not happy with Newsom, which he sees as too tied to the unions and lacking the skill to tackle big challenges. But he couldn’t find anyone in the Republican field who got him excited.
This isn’t the first time Ardell, 80, a Laguna Beach resident who worked in commercial real estate before retiring, has accompanied a Democrat. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and against Trump both times.
The Republican Party as he knew it no longer exists, said Ardell, who nevertheless has no plans to change his party’s registration.
“There is the cult of Trump, and then there are the others who are unwilling or unable or who will be slaughtered if they stray from the cult,” he said.
Demographic shifts are also driving political changes, experts say. More than half of Orange County’s residents are Latinos or Asians, with population growth among generally left-wing groups set to continue.
A majority of voters in cities like Santa Ana, Irvine and Anaheim, which have increasingly diverse populations, voted against the recall, according to maps provided by the Orange County Registrar of Electors.
In conservative strongholds like Newport Beach and San Clemente, most voters wanted to oust Newsom.
Huntington Beach also voted for the recall, but the results were closer than in many other traditionally conservative towns in the county, the maps show.
Although still redder than the county as a whole, the coastal city is changing.
Across the county, registered Democrats overtook Republicans several years ago.
In Huntington Beach, Republicans still hold a 9% advantage over Democrats, with 22% of residents not registered with a party.
The city, unlike the county, has backed Trump both times. But the city council has passed to Democrats this year and is predominantly female.
The city is also diversifying: almost a third of the inhabitants are Latinos or Asians.
In June, Huntington Beach hoisted the LGBTQ rainbow flag at Town Hall for Pride Month.
The following month, council members appointed Democrat Rhonda Bolton to replace Ortiz, a mixed martial arts fighter who made headlines by flouting indoor mask requirements.
The backlash was immediate. Some hissed and booed the appointment of the city’s first black council member.
One person shouted that she was a “transplant” – apparently because the attorney and diversity consultant moved to the city about eight years ago from Washington, DC Another shouted that the council was part of “l ‘Deep state’.
Huntington Beach soon had its own recall campaign against most of the board members, led by a small group angry at Bolton’s appointment.
Mayor Kim Carr, a Democrat, won a city council seat in 2018 on a platform to tackle high-density development, fix aging infrastructure and tackle rising homelessness.
Most residents are more interested in “bread and butter” issues like good schools and clean parks than party affiliation of their local elected officials, she said.
But during her tenure, she fought against what she sees as a frustrating and enduring narrative that Huntington Beach is breeding ground for political extremism.
“There is a small group of individuals who are afraid of change,” she said. “But when I look at the next generation of people in Huntington Beach, I see a different city emerge.”