OC GOP's Apocalypse Now

The party's over for Republicans in Orange County and California

OC GOP's Apocalypse Now

For Orange County and California Republicans, it was difficult to imagine a more dire political situation going into the 2012 November elections: If state Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-Fullerton) lost his seat to relative newcomer Sharon Quirk-Silva, he would hand Democrats supermajority powers in Sacramento and, during a period with monumental governmental decisions pending, officially make Republicans irrelevant in state politics for the first time in 80 years.

A Quirk-Silva victory in the newly drawn 65th State Assembly District—a swath encompassing parts of Anaheim, Fullerton, Cypress, La Palma, Buena Park, Brea and Stanton that looks like a partially melted Pac-Man—would represent the proverbial nail in the coffin for Republicans by not only leaving Democrats in control of every major elected office (two U.S. Senate seats, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, controller, superintendent of public instruction and insurance commissioner), but also in insurmountable domination of the state Legislature.

That outcome would mean Democrats could run California on whim even more so than they have for the two years since Arnold Schwarzenegger thankfully returned to making horrible action movies. Republicans would be powerless against legislation dreamed up by the liberal-tilting coalition of public-employee unions, environmentalists, gays, women, blacks, Latinos, Asians and pro-consumer watchdogs that has set the agenda in Sacramento for the past 15 years. They couldn't even perform their usual task of thwarting tax and fee increases on individuals and corporations.

Quirk-Silva made history for Democrats
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Quirk-Silva made history for Democrats
Last dance? GOP events in the 1980s and ’90s were packed; not so much anymore, as a 2012 election night photo proves
Kevin Liu
Last dance? GOP events in the 1980s and ’90s were packed; not so much anymore, as a 2012 election night photo proves

You might guess that doomsday scenario would motivate conservatives to take emergency action to ensure Norby's re-election. After all, party activists went into DEFCON 1 over Barack Obama's birth certificate and, as has been voiced by wide-eyed, tequila-guzzling Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa), the president's secret desires to make the USA a subsidiary of the United Nations and a protector of Islamic terrorists. Surely, the inescapable effects of a Quirk-Silva win meant they'd drop the fantasies and pour overwhelming resources and cutthroat strategies into thwarting her candidacy.

Incredibly, it didn't, and Republicans can't claim ignorance of the consequences. Dozens of pre-election news articles laid out the stakes of the contest centering on voters in the 65th. These people would decide whether to send the party of Abe Lincoln into the corner for a minimum two-year timeout.

When all the votes were tallied, Quirk-Silva didn't just squeak by Norby. The Fullerton mayor easily won a race that both liberal and conservative campaign experts labeled in pre-election analysis as a solid GOP seat. She pulled ahead early on election night, never relinquished the lead and ultimately sailed to victory with a 5,500-vote margin.

For decades, Orange County Democrats such as Loretta Sanchez, Tom Umberg, Jose Solorio, Jerry Patterson and Lou Correa won state or federal elections only in portions of the county where they enjoyed sizeable voter-registration advantages. Quirk-Silva made history. With the help of her rookie campaign manager, 31-year-old ex-punk-rock band member Jason Mills, the elementary-school teacher did what was considered impossible in a place once hailed by conservatives as Reagan Country: defeated a Republican incumbent in a district where Republicans outnumbered Democrats at the outset of the race and which for decades had sent rabid right-wingers to Sacramento.

Was the victory of another Latina Democrat over a veteran, white Republican politician a meaningless fluke or further proof of the GOP's inability to adapt to shifting population demographics? Have OC and California Republicans finally hit rock-bottom? Do they have a plan to recover some semblance of power? Or are they destined for more ballot-box irrelevance?

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Inside the Newport Beach lobbying offices he shares with fellow Republican heavyweights Jim Righeimer and Jon Fleischman, Scott Baugh knows there are angry members of his party who are demanding a major overhaul. Through one-way, light-deflecting windows, Baugh can gaze at the tranquil lawns of the Pacific Club, a hotspot for business and political deals. But the chairman of the Orange County Republican Party isn't hiding his assessment of the party's status quo.

"We're doing a poor job," said Baugh, a former state Assemblyman and Assembly Republican Leader from Huntington Beach. "We've got the right principles about prosperity and freedom, but we're not communicating them to voters. Too many of our candidates have lost the ability to articulate a bright and bold future for the average American. We have too much of a corporate mentality, and it's not working."

Though Republicans continue to occupy more than 90 percent of all public offices in OC, Baugh twice used the word "fatigue" to describe party members' mood following recent state and federal election losses. "There's no doubt we've seen a decline of the Republican Party in Orange County and California," he said. "It's really a statewide issue. We've had national tickets that ignore OC except for the cash-o-nomics, and it's difficult to get people to the polls when they aren't excited about the candidates at the top of the ticket."

Other troubles are more homegrown. A mention of Quirk-Silva's victory produced a sigh, and Baugh somberly noted that even if Norby had been re-elected, California Republicans still would have botched the elections because they also lost another so-called safe Republican assembly seat in the Palmdale/Lancaster area. "So Democrats have a supermajority and a one-vote cushion in Sacramento," he said. "The question is: How long will that last? Two years? Four years?"

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