Sanctuary State Politics: Orange County's Identity Crisis By Nicky Riordan
The California State Legislature passed various protections for immigrants in late 2017 making California the first "sanctuary state." Stark internal division within the state and the political parties on immigration is nothing new. The current political climate under the Trump Administration and Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice, paired with high-stakes midterm elections later this year, have brought new life to the conversation. This series will analyze nuanced dynamics of immigration policy and ideology across California during the 2018 midterm campaign.
Orange County (OC) is a unique mix of constituencies in Southern California between San Diego and LA. Well-known as one of the more historically conservative areas of California, the OC has begun trending blue in the past few elections, and this has brought a renewed focus to the region going into the 2018 midterms. Most notably, Clinton won the county in 2016. This was the first time a Democrat has taken it since the Great Depression.
Four of seven targeted California Republican seats in November come from Orange County, two of which saw Republican incumbents retiring due to strong competition and changing political dynamics. Growing constituencies of minority communities and college-educated white women are leading the charge.
The conservative history of Orange County becomes clear when you look at the demographics that make up the region. The OC is famously home to wealthy bastions such as Huntington Beach and Newport, where annual household income averages over $150,000 and the population is 70 to 80 percent white, while also home to older, more traditional conservatives and ex-military populations in the suburban areas.
This constituency has provided a cushion for Republicans in the region and in the state as a whole. That said, there has been a recent leveling off within the immigrant communities is prompting an identity crisis. The county is now 24 percent Hispanic and 20 percent Asian. Republicans are hoping that a renewed focus on the immigration debate can reverse this course.
Take Los Alamitos, a small suburban town in Orange County that took the lead in the sanctuary state backlash when, earlier this year, city leaders approved an ordinance exempting them from the California Values Act. The effort, largely symbolic, spurred a number of additional efforts in up to 10 other cities across Orange County to express their disdain for what they see as state overreach, as well as a vote by the County Board of Supervisors to support the Trump Administration’s lawsuit against California on protections for immigrants.
In 2016, however, the Los Alamitos vote was almost split evenly between Trump and Clinton. In a city where both sides have a notable constituency, hundreds appeared to support the effort to join the Trump Administration in denouncing sanctuary policies, proving that the Orange County Republican base still responds to this issue as a motivator.
In contrast, the city of Anaheim recently passed a measure to establish itself as part of the Welcoming America Initiative, a program that encourage cities to include the priorities of immigrant and refugee communities in their economic and social development plans. With a population that is approximately 40 percent foreign born or children of foreign born parents, the city seeks to integrate these community members into the larger fabric of the region. Although other parts of Orange County have elected not to support Trump Administration immigration policies, this move by Anaheim is the most progressive in the region to date. Unlike San Diego, Orange County has not been exposed to the benefits of diversity over long periods of international integration, and this is a new concept and risk for leaders in the county.
Even still, some surprising parts of Orange County remain on the fence, like the more rural city of Fullerton. Although typically a conservative-leaning area, the presence of more Latino residents and college-age students activated on this issue showed up to protest and pressured the council into a stalemate: when presented with the opportunity to vote on taking a stance against the state, the City Council remained neutral. The difference between the positions of Anaheim, Fullerton, and Los Alamitos highlight the fact that Orange County is uniquely stratified on this issue, changing demographics are complicating the narrative, and it is a wild card going into November.
Take this June’s primary elections. Sandra Hutchens, Orange County Sheriff, has been a strong proponent for the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and litigation against the state. Hutchens announced a decision earlier this year to begin publicly posting the names of released inmates to alert ICE and asked the Board of Supervisors to expand the number of federal immigration detainees to be held in county jails. She will not be running for reelection, so the primary saw Republican undersheriff Don Barnes pitted against Democratic challenger Duke Nguyen and another Republican challenger, Aliso Viejo mayor David Harrington.
Harrington is well-known for recent appearances at Tea Party meetings across the county, touting his city’s steps in opposing California’s sanctuary laws. Despite historical conservative dominance in Sheriff races, this one ended in a runoff - the first since 1978 in the county, perhaps suggesting that the hardline immigration stance is less popular than it may seem.
As for the Congressional races, there are four seats currently held by Republicans that are being aggressively targeted by Democrats as an opportunity to get closer to flipping the House. No Democratic candidates took the lead in any of the four races, and Republican voters edged Democrats in turnout. On the other hand, registration trends are looking better for Democrats in the long run. Between the 1990’s and now, Democrats have narrowed the gap in registration from a 20-point Republican advantage, to a 4-point advantage today. In the 39th district, for instance, Republicans now only have a one point advantage, potentially one reason why incumbent Ed Royce decided not to run for reelection.
The immigration debate took a step back when recent Trump Administration policies ignited progressives over family separations and harsh deterrence techniques at the border. As the news cycle refreshes and moves into November, however, it will be important to keep an eye on how candidates and political analysts within Orange County begin to frame the argument.
While some prominent Democrats, including Senator Kamala Harris of California, are adopting policy positions like abolishing ICE, others are trying to walk the line between the far left and right constituencies in their districts, as message and timing are key in a divided county.
The race for OC Sheriff will be important to keep an eye on, as it may portend major additional political shifts in the region if the office comes under Democratic control, and the four Congressional races are expected to be exciting and competitive. As a whole, Orange County is a lively and uncertain reflection of immigration politics.
Nicky Riordan (@nriordan120), Political Analyst, The Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research, reporting from California