The Buzz is the Register’s weekly political news column.
Turnout and enthusiasm at Orange County Democrats annual Truman Awards Dinner on Saturday dished up the latest reminder of the county’s changing political tilt and its national role in next year’s congressional elections.
Keynote speaker Keith Elllison, deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told the crowd that of the 24 seats his party needs to pickup to take control of the House, four of the targeted seats are those held in Orange County by Republicans Ed Royce, Darrell Issa, Mimi Walters and Dana Rohrabacher.
“Royce – he’s always going on about the private sector,” said Ellison, who also serves as a Minnesota congressman. “He should join it. Same with Issa, Walters and Rohrabacher.”
The crowd of about 800 in the Costa Mesa Hilton banquet hall was twice the size of many of the party’s annual dinners, which have typically drawn 400 to 500 of the county’s faithful. And it roughly matched the usual size of the county GOP’s similar event.
That reflects a demographic shift that is erasing Republicans’ longstanding advantage in the county. Two decades ago, the GOP led Democrats in voter registration by 20 percentage points. That’s steadily shrunken, and is now at 3.4 points.
The gap has been closing particularly fast since Donald Trump won the GOP nomination last year – down from 5.7 points in July. If sustained, that pace that would see Democrats taking the lead before the 2020 presidential election, according to party calculations.
“It’s the new infusion of people into the party because of Trump,” said party Vice Chairman Jeff LeTourneau in explaining turnout Saturday “And the huge infusion of candidates who each brought their people.”
Too many candidates?
Of the 22 Democrats who’ve already launched campaigns against the county’s four GOP House members, at least 10 were on hand Saturday. In years past, it often took until the spring before a single candidate could be recruited to challenge a Republican incumbent.
Nick Anas, a former executive director for the county party, joked to the crowd that being able to tie one’s shoes was qualification enough to run as a Democrat in the past.
“The quality of people who are (now) stepping up to serve is incredible,” he said.
In fact, a growing concern among many is that there may be too many contenders.
“In this early phase, it’s a good thing – it gets a lot of people involved and engaged,” said Villa Park businessman Andy Thorburn, one of five Democrats challenging Royce. “But there is a time when you want to see the field coalesce into two or three people.
“If you have too many people, there’s a chance the best person doesn’t advance out of the primary. A passionate base can pick a lesser qualified candidates out of a big field. Trump is an example of that.”
Others have expressed concern that a big field of Democrats – there are seven challenging Rohrabacher – could split the vote and allow two Republicans to advance out of the top-two primary. And some worry that money will be spent in intra-party primary battles rather than against Republicans in November.
Laguna Beach’s Han Kierstead, one of the top early fundraisers in the Rohrabacher race, said he hopes endorsements by members of Congress and by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will prompt Democrats with less support to drop out.
Kierstead was helped with his entry into the race by the DCCC and said he confers with DCCC leaders weekly. But another top fundraiser in the race, Laguna Beach’s Harley Rouda, said the DCCC is also helping his campaign.
“The only way our campaign will end is if we don’t advance past the primary,” he told me Saturday.
Beside the county’s two Democratic House members and three Democratic state legislators, the crowd included gubernatorial candidates Antonio Villlaraigosa and Delaine Easton, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, California Democratic Party Chairman Eric Bauman and a host of local elected officials.
The Harry S. Truman Award honoree was state Sen. Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, who is facing a recall election because of his support for a $52-billion transportation bill that includes a 12-cent per gallon tax hike. Democrats throughout the state are closing ranks to help Newman try to beat back the recall.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations received the Social Justice Award, former Irvine Mayor Beth Krom was honored with the Richard J. O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award and Laborers Local 652 won the Samuel Gompers Labor Award.