ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Orange County, once, was Republicanism personified.
The conservative old guard's once hallowed territory has partly succumbed to a burgeoning, grassroots network of Democratic organizers. These insurgents are well-capitalized, growing in number, and echo values of racial diversity and affordable healthcare trumpeted by party leaders. Conquerors of all seven U.S. Congressional districts in 2018, they look to keep their gains and win deeper purchase at the lowest government levels.
Demographics have shifted in their favor, and once tightly gerrymandered voting districts have loosened. The turbulent presidency of Donald Trump threw an accelerant on the county's trend leftward, awakening dormant liberals and converting old GOP allies into political enemies. Democratic enthusiasm ballooned.
Many of those human resources have helped fill out Democratic political clubs, deepening growing fissures in a once red county. Since 2016, nine new clubs have formed to bring the count to 25. Some clubs boast membership in the hundreds, possessing the clout and networking to haul in war chests of six-figures. They donate these dollars to local candidates to buy door hangers, signs and fire off text messages.
Among the largest in the county is Canyon Democrats, a club of 400 dues-paying members. Louise Adler, the club chair, joined in 2016. Her husband Howard, who passed away in 2011, had once led the Democratic Party of Orange County.
"If Democrats believed the election was won, they wouldn't be doing what they're doing now," Adler said. "They're sending us money. They're joining our club; they're asking questions."
Phone apps built for political campaigns grow more sophisticated each cycle, drawing from deeper and broader voter data. Adler's operation can narrow in on people who have yet to vote and target them down with texts and phone calls. In 2018 her group delivered thank you notes to everyone who voted in the club's territory.
The field operation is there to offer a critical mass of support for Democrats of all levels. The club even had swag.
"Every time Trump does something bizarre, the money flows in. Usually, we give candidates one round of contributions, but this time we've had to go back," she said.
The club has earned more than $40,000 and has delivered three rounds of funding to some candidates while intensifying down-ballot races' efforts. The club donated $4,800 to city council candidates in Rancho Santa Margarita and Mission Viejo.
"We're just now having a real shot at city council races," she said.
That's thanks to Trump's unpopularity statewide.
A Sept. 25 Berkley Institute of Governmental Studies poll shows former Vice President Joe Biden drawing support from 67 percent of likely voters while the Public Policy Institute of California reported 60 percent in its Oct. 5 report.
Trump's unpopularity has become problematic for Republicans of all levels, with state assembly and senate candidates diligently working to distance themselves. Josh Newman has suggested a cozy relationship between Senate District 29 incumbent Ling Ling Chang and the president. And Democrat challenger for Assembly District 68 Melissa Fox has invested heavily in labeling Steven Choi as an extremist.
Money and resources have supported these Democrat candidates, some from an increasingly formidable county party.
The Democratic Party of Orange County has expanded from one full-time employee to four, and fundraising jumped 71 percent from 2018 to 2019. And for the first time in county history, registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans.
The numbers have translated into more numerous and aggressive runs for office. In 2016, 117 Democrats ran. It's 221 this election cycle. While animus for Trump's presidency has fueled what may be temporary passions, political observers say broad candidate participation can lead to future party strength.
Money won't be in short supply for party-endorsed candidates.
This year, political spending has gone supernova, burying records and pumping campaign cash into races at all levels.
Total spending could pass $11 billion, 50 percent more than 2016, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics projects.
"The unanswered question is whether this will be the new normal for future elections," the center wrote in its report.
Campaign tools that allow a single staffer to send out 10,000 texts in just a few hours have become available to all candidates. Even with broad access to cheap, effective tools, Democrat campaigns stand out.
"The Republican party machine was A list, it was top of the line," said independent political consultant Jimmy Camp. "Democrats were the backbenchers and never really had the same professional campaigning."
Camp expects a torrent of Democrat support this election, following the all-time big money and still deepening dislike for Trump. But he notes extensive Republican representation remains throughout city governments in the county.
"I think we're going to see more [Republican losses] with the down-ballot elections," he said. "Maybe not this cycle, but it's coming."
Still, the massive amounts of money and mobilization of liberal voters that exist now may dissipate, he said. With four years of Democrat control, voters, donations, and people power could sag by the next cycle.
"I think it's a pendulum," Camp said. "I don't think it's done, but when it is, I think it'll swing back [towards Republicans]."
But how much it will swing back, he said, is impossible to say.
Carole Uhlaner, a retired political science professor at the University of California, Irvine, called local government "the farm system" for higher office where officials can learn how to govern and turn constituent input into concrete policy.
"It's not like running a business where you can command and control, and you can direct your underlings," she said.
It's these lowest levels of government that have no national profile but often affect people much more, Uhlaner said. Partisanship is in shorter supply, and the immediate proximity to constituents forces regular interaction with them.
But even as the country hurtles toward Election Day, little is guaranteed. Republican candidates for Congress, Young Kim, Michelle Steel, and Greg Raths are thought to be competitive in county districts. Money continues to flow, especially in competitive races, and polling errors loom.
Confident predictions for this cycle have gone nearly extinct, and officials nationwide have prepared for a protracted ballot count. Whatever the result, Orange County is no longer all that is Republican and may never be again.