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Will Orange County Turn Blue?

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FULLERTON, California – Orange County has become ground zero for Democrats trying to turn Republican districts blue in close races. They’ll only be able to succeed if they can mobilize Latino and Asian voters, who have been changing the face of this traditionally white, conservative and Republican community.

In seven California districts — four in Southern California, in Orange County, and three in Central California — Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the 2016 general election. However, the Congressional seats remained in Republican hands. Of the 53 House seats for the state of California, 14 are occupied by Republicans, and for the November midterms seven are considered competitive — precisely the districts where Clinton won in 2016.

The signs of change are visible. In northern Orange County, which tends to be more liberal than the more conservative southern part of the county, the Latino and Asian communities have been leaving their mark. If Democrats can mobilize Latino and Asian voters in the numbers needed to turn the election, these Republican districts will shift their power to Democrats — contributing to a change of leadership in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Many activists, however, point out that political parties and campaigns, particularly Democrats, do not invest enough into these voters, especially young people, in a consistent manner and only come to devote time and resources at the last minute.

Similarly, private foundations or donors that help finance and mobilize some of the voter registration initiatives often allocate funds to specific states and districts, leaving out large portions of voters.

There is no doubt that the 2018 midterms are seen as a referendum on Donald Trump’s performance, even though he’s not on the ballot. But in the midterms local issues carry a lot of weight.

Many civic organizations, some established decades ago and others more recently formed, have been given the task of educating, registering  and mobilizing California voters throughout the state, with a special emphasis on the seven districts that can shift the balance of power in the House if Democrats win.

If anything characterizes these efforts it’s that they are led mostly by young people, many of them Latino, at a time when they are being criticized for not voting at the levels that they could.

But these young people are breaking stereotypes that portray them as apathetic and disinterested in the electoral process.

Last Tuesday we met with the young people who lead the canvassing efforts in these key districts to speak to constituents, particularly low propensity voters, in order to urge them to exercise their right to vote on November 6th.

In Orange County in Southern California, we are talking specifically about four districts: District 39, where Hispanic Democrat Gil Cisneros is up against Republican Young Kim for the seat that Republican Ed Royce is vacating; Clinton won that district in 2016 by almost 9 points. District 45, where Republican incumbent, Mimi Walters faces Democrat Katie Porter; Clinton won in that district by 5 points in 2016. District 48, where Republican incumbent Dana Rohrabacher faces Democrat Harley Rouda; in this district Republicans are leading Democrats by 10 points in voter registration, but Clinton also won this district in 2016 by 2 points. And District 49, where Republican Diane Harkey faces Democrat Mike Levin for Republican incumbent Darrell Issa’s seat; Clinton won that district by 7.5 points in 2016.

We went out with these young canvassers in a neighborhood in District 39, south of Fullerton, where Hispanic Democrat Cisneros faces a close race against Republican Young Kim.

The neighborhood south of Fullerton in District 39 is one of the poorest and most Hispanic in the district.

Obviously these residents have a number of issues in mind: the high costs of rent and salaries that don’t reflect the economic boom everyone is talking about; medical coverage, education, and in many cases immigration. Some of the residents say that they will vote and that they will vote for Cisneros. Others have no information and the canvassers provide flyers with a summary of the positions of Cisneros and Kim. Another believes that the papers they present are voting ballots and ask where to sign. A young woman who is not old enough to vote signs her early registration documents so that she will automatically receive her voting card when she turns 18. In another home a woman responds: “I’m not interested.”

“That could mean ‘I’m not interested now because I’m doing something else’ or because ‘I have no intention of voting.’ In November we will know which of the two it was,” says Luis Alemán, a 23 year old field director of the Orange County Voter Information Project (OCVIP), established by the organization NextGen and the California Labor Federation. These young people operate in teams that promote voting in the traditionally Republican districts of Orange County, hoping to mobilize Latino and Asian voters.

Avoid the mistakes of the past: talking to Latino voters only one month before the elections.

Everyone agrees on the importance of investing to educate, inform, and reach out to  these communities consistently and not only during election years.

“The outreach matters so much. In a county like Orange, the difference between registered Republican and Democratic voters is just 1.95%. 10 years ago it was 10%. There is progress, but you have to educate the voter so that, in addition to registering, they will vote because they understand what’s at stake,” says Alemán.

“What we can’t repeat are the mistakes of the past: talking to Latinos only a month before the elections. If you are not present in the community and if you don’t do outreach consistently, they will not open their doors 30 days before the election to tell you that they will vote. You have to cultivate relationships, and that’s what we are doing and what we will continue to do,” he adds.

“Yes, there are expectations of a ‘blue wave’ in November, but what we want to develop is a long-term strategy to register, educate, and mobilize a community that is a large party of this county, but has never really been talked to,” he says.

Alemán worked with the Barack Obama Campaign in 2012 and when comparing it to the general election in 2016, he says that Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not invest enough in Latino voters. “She won the state of California, but the Republicans down ballot won their elections. In District 48, for example, more people voted in the congressional race in favor of [Republican congressman] Rohrabacher than those who voted in the presidential election in favor Clinton,” said Alemán.

Part of the same OCVIP group, Sandra Quiroz, 20 years old, leads canvassers in District 39. California State University in Fullerton is also in that same district.

“We have a lot of students in this area who are well informed and know who they want to vote for. For the older population in these neighborhoods it’s more difficult. They have trouble understanding what’s happening, but we are doing a good job at spreading information,” explains Quiroz.

Alemán says that compared to 2016 there is more enthusiasm, especially among Democrats because they are upset with the Trump Presidency. “But we see the dichotomy between those who are super excited about voting and those say ‘it’s Tuesday, why are you at my door?’”

Between deception and new enthusiasm

Enthusiasm goes hand in hand with education level and economic status. In economically depressed areas, where families are hit hardest by the high cost of housing, low wages, and unemployment, “it is more complicated to get voters excited when they feel that both political parties have abandoned them,” explains Alemán. “‘Why am I going to vote if in the end my vote did not count,’ they tell us.”

Alfredo Torreblanca, 20 years old, leads canvassing efforts in District 48, now occupied by Republican Dana Rohrabacher. He explains that, “another factor, especially among Hispanics, is that they are disappointed by what happened in the 2016 election. “‘I voted and we lost, my vote did not count,’ they tell us.”

He added: “I have come across some cases in which I have convinced people to vote and they tell me they are doing it because I went to their homes and asked them to.” Torreblanca emphasizes the importance of appealing directly to voters, but steadily and not days from the election.

Brian Leal, who is 26 years old, leads canvassing efforts in District 45, and confirms that enthusiasm exists when voters are informed. “Everything depends on education. Many don’t know that there’s an election every two years. They don’t know the issues well, they only know that they want to take a side and defend a cause. They see all the coverage around Donald Trump and they feel overwhelmed, but maybe they do not feel that everything that is said about Trump really impacts them directly in their communities.”

Therefore, he adds, “if I talk about taxes or education, I try to explain to them why their vote determines solutions to their problems.”

The factors that interest voters vary. “Trump is a factor with older Democrats who say they hate him. For younger more diverse voters, it’s daily issues like high cost of rent or health [care]. Another thing we hear a lot about is that politicians don’t care about our situation.” Alemán explains. Torreblanca adds that when he asks voters to name three issues they care about, “the first one is Trump, and that he needs to go.” “I do not know how big or strong the voter drive will be, or how fast we will get there, but I can say that I have seen more willingness to participate this time around because they want to get Trump out.”

“It’s too soon to say whether or not there will be a blue wave in November, but the enthusiasm is growing, especially among young people who are encouraged because they are being sought out to participate. Little by little, we will improve participation rates. The numbers will go up. I don’t know much, but they will go up,” ensures Leal.

And the end of our tour of these neighborhoods, we came across a man who had just arrived from his job. He began watering his lawn. He did not want to give us his name, but he told us that he always votes, in every election. He’s been in Fullerton for 28 years and in the United States for 42, since the 1970’s.

Trump, he tells us, “was a clown from the beginning, but it wasn’t my decision to elect him…he was not my candidate.”

“Many complain that they are not happy with the government, but those who can vote, don’t vote,” he says.

His final message was strong: “If we don’t vote, we can’t complain.”