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Gustavo Arellano: Could Longtime GOP Stronghold Orange County Go Blue in Midterms?

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Orange County, California, has become an unexpected battleground region that could determine who controls Congress after the midterms. The Southern California county between Los Angeles and San Diego has remained staunchly Republican for 80 years. Orange County produced President Richard Nixon—who was born here in Yorba Linda and retired to San Clemente—and Orange County last voted for a Democratic president in 1936 with FDR. But dissatisfaction with Donald Trump and changing demographics in the region have challenged Republican dominance in and around Orange County. Now Democrats are hoping that the midterm elections will turn Orange County blue. We speak to Gustavo Arellano, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the former editor of OC Weekly. He resigned from the publication last year in protest against budget cuts.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Orange County, California, one of the key battlegrounds that could determine who controls Congress after the midterms. The Southern California county between Los Angeles and San Diego has remained staunchly Republican for 80 years. Orange County produced President Richard Nixon, who was born here in Yorba Linda and retired to San Clemente, and Orange County last voted for a Democratic president in 1936 with FDR. But dissatisfaction with Donald Trump and changing demographics in the region have challenged Republican dominance in and around Orange County. Now Democrats are hoping that the midterm elections will turn Orange County blue. Democrats need to win 23 Republican seats in November to regain control of the House of Representatives. Many of the tightest races that could determine the House are in Southern California.

In California’s 48th District, longtime incumbent Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is battling to keep his seat after 30 years in office. Rohrabacher is an anti-immigrant climate change skeptic who is known for his close ties to Russia. He’s closely aligned with President Trump and has voted repeatedly to repeal Obamacare. He said that people should be able to refuse to sell their homes to gay people, and has called California’s sanctuary law an invitation for criminals from all over the world to come here. He has also said a, quote, “massive flow of illegal immigrants” are, quote, “changing our quality of life.” He’s running against Democrat Harley Rouda, a former Republican. In the 45th District, law professor Katie Porter, who has been described as Senator Elizabeth Warren’s protégée, is challenging two-time Republican incumbent Mimi Walters in another tight race. In the 39th Congressional District, Republican Young Kim, a South Korean immigrant, is running against Democrat Gil Cisneros.

Well, for more, we’re joined here in Santa Ana by Gustavo Arellano. He is a columnist for the L.A. Times, former editor of OC Weekly.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Gustavo.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Gracias for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, go through the list. A lot of focus, more so than ever—I mean, this was definitely red country. Now, is Orange County turning blue?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: It’s the place where Reagan said all the good Republicans go to die. And obviously, anything wacky and horrible about Republican politics in the United States came from Orange County. You could even draw a direct line between Orange County and Donald Trump. And so, of course, there’s going to be a lot of attention paid. Can Orange County actually deliver the Congress to the Democrats? And I still am skeptical. Again, born and raised here in Orange County, I’ve been covering Orange County my entire career, and so to think that we’re actually at the cusp of revolution, I’m still a skeptic.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Dana Rohrabacher versus Harley Rouda.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: So, we’ve got to remember the district. The main district, it’s split up between two cities, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach. Laguna Beach—they’re both on the coast, both historical. Laguna Beach is more hippy-dippy and whatever. Huntington Beach, though, it’s filled with a bunch of—I don’t know if I could say it on the air, but let’s just say a bunch of racists. And so, these are the people who have been electing Dana Rohrabacher for 30 years. And Dana Rohrabacher is beloved in this district. All he has to do is just go on a surfboard once a year—he calls himself the surfing congressman—and that’s it. Harley Rouda, brand new, millionaire, was a Republican not too long ago. So, that said, a lot of people do not like Dana Rohrabacher. So, this district really depends on how many people like him versus how many people hate him. But, that said, I do not discount the fact that the people who like Dana Rohrabacher are going to go out in droves, just because they despise anything that even wreaks of liberalism.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the political culture in Orange County, why it’s a Republican stronghold?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: It used to be all agriculture. So, it used to be orange groves. There’s an “orange” to Orange County. That’s before the 1950s. After the 1950s, it becomes suburbia. So, you have two places where farming and development played a key role in the economy. Also you had the defense industry. So, of course you were going to have a lot of suburbanite racists coming in, and they’re the people who had the power structure forever and ever.

All of that has slowly been changing. There’s still big parts of Orange County that remain that way. It’s like the Deep South, except we don’t have African Americans, we have Mexicans. And especially we’re so close to the border, so you just have a lot of racism, a lot of middle-class racism, just building upon itself again and again. So the Republicans were able to build this political dynasty. And that said, the Democrats ruled Orange County as recently as the 1970s. You had Democrats in Congress. You had Democrats on the Board of Supervisors. The problem with those Democrats, though, was they were all corrupt, and they all went to jail, and so the Republicans came in. They’re smart enough to not put themselves in jail, but they’re still dominating all the local races and, until now, all the congressional races.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the 39th District, where it is. Here, you have two people of color who are running against each other: Republican Young Kim, Democrat Gil Cisneros.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: So, the 39th Congressional District is going to be northeast Orange County, so we’re talking about Fullerton, Yorba Linda, also a little bit of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, some parts working-class, a lot of parts wealthy. More importantly, it’s about a third Latino, a third white and a third Asian, so very much—you want to talk about the future of Orange County—everyone pays attention to the Dana Rohrabacher race, but that’s the one that really shows how Orange County is nowadays. Young Kim, she was a longtime staffer for a longtime congressman, Ed Royce, who’s retiring because he knew he wasn’t going to win, former state assemblywoman, then lost, then became a state assemblywoman again, and now she’s running for Congress. Gil Cisneros, another one of these, a first-time candidate, once Republican, now a Democrat, became a multimillionaire because he actually won a Powerball a couple years ago. So, Young Kim, she’s the one with the name recognition. But the same thing: How many people hate Young or hate Trump versus how many people actually like Gil? I can’t really tell you many people really, truly like Gil, because no one knows who exactly he is.

AMY GOODMAN: But this promises to be close.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Oh, yeah, it’s close all around. But—

AMY GOODMAN: And Gil Cisneros is a well-known political activist and figure.

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Meh. I’ve been here my entire life. I didn’t hear about Gil Cisneros until he announced. Yeah. People are desperately hoping, praying that this can come to Orange County, that a Democratic blue wave can come to Orange County. Again, do not underestimate the wackiness and the horribleness of Orange County voters. Until Election Day, I’m not trusting anything. I tell this to Democrats all the time. And frankly, the Democrats, they never expected to be here. If that even—for the past 25 years, if they had even expected, “Hey, maybe one day we could actually challenge the Republicans,” they’d be in a much better position than they are right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the growing Vietnamese-American community. I mean, it’s the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, is that right?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: Yeah, Little Saigon around Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana. And it’s interesting how these politics, these demographic politics, play out in Orange County, because the Vietnamese community is still resolutely Republican. There are a couple of Democrats. And when we talk about Republican, we’re talking about Donald Trump-supporting, flaming, right-wing whack job Republicans. And so, they’re running for city council. There’s a lot of attention being put on, “Oh, 28 of them are running this year, and 13 of them have the same last name: Nguyen. Hee hee hee, ha ha ha.” Come on. Like, these—most of these Vietnamese that are running, they’re worthless politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s turn to San Diego. Can you talk about Republican Duncan Hunter running against Ammar Campa-Najjar, the Mexican Palestinian American, a very significant race? I mean, Duncan Hunter is the person who—I think he was the second congressmember to endorse President Trump. He and his wife were indicted in August, misusing $250,000 in campaign funds on trips to Hawaii, Italy and Lake Tahoe, other extravagant personal expenses including spending $600 to fly his family’s pet rabbit across the country. Hunter has responded by blaming his wife. Duncan Hunter was the second congressmember to endorse Trump. The first, New York Congressmember Chris Collins, has also been indicted. I want to go to a campaign ad produced by Duncan Hunter attacking his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar.

NARRATOR: Ammar Campa-Najjar is working to infiltrate Congress. He’s used three different names to hide his family’s ties to terrorism. His grandfather masterminded the Munich Olympic massacre. His father said, “They deserved to die.”

UNIDENTIFIED: A Palestinian-Mexican millennial Democrat named Ammar Campa-Najjar doesn’t get his support from the people of San Diego.

PUNDIT: He is being supported by CAIR and the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a well-orchestrated plan.

NARRATOR: Ammar Campa-Najjar, a risk we can’t ignore.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: I’m Duncan Hunter, and I approve this message.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Ammar Campa-Najjar responding to this ad on MSNBC.

AMMAR CAMPA-NAJJAR: Honestly, what are we doing as a nation? We have policies. We have things we could talk about. This is a deeply un-American ad. And I feel like John McCain, if he were with us today, would be so appalled. You’ll remember, he stood up against a woman who tried to disparage President Obama on the same line of argument. And I think the party of McCain, the party of Reagan even, is long gone. And it’s heartbreaking, because I have friends who are Republican. It’s deeply un-American. It’s not true. I’m not a security threat. I was given a clearance by the FBI. The security threat is Duncan Hunter, who was criminally indicted for spending a quarter-million dollars. And the corruption smoking gun that you talked about was when he paid back $60,000. He is guilty. And it’s only a matter of time until people hold him accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ammar Campa-Najjar. Gustavo, can you respond?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: I love it. It’s a very American ad. Are you kidding me? Demonizing, being scared about Palestinians and Mexicans? This is like the Republican nightmare come to life. I love it.

Unfortunately, that district, San Diego, it’s basically like Orange County of the 1970s, filled with a bunch of rabid right-wing lunatics. And so, I think Duncan Hunter is going to win. Who cares if he’s indicted? Republicans don’t care if their candidates are indicted. They’re Republicans. And they think Democrats, just for being Democrats, they’re evil. And if you’re Mexican on top of that, you’re even more evil. Then, Palestinian, like they can’t—they can’t pin that he’s Muslim on him anymore, because he’s Christian. He converted to Christianity. So, it’s a nightmare candidate. I think he’s a future of the Democrats, and I think that’d be a wonderful thing if he’s a future.

AMY GOODMAN: Any final comment you’d like to make for people who are watching this around the country? The possibility that the House could turn based on the races here?

GUSTAVO ARELLANO: The fact that we’re having this conversation itself is historic. No one ever thought that Orange County would even be close to purple. I would say at the OC Weekly, the paper that I used to edit, we were the prophets. We’ve been calling this for a long time. This is still an imperfect revolution. So my hope is that the Democrats learn what’s good, and instead of supporting corporatist Democrats, let’s do the good Democrats.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank Gustavo Arellano for being with us, columnist for the L.A. Times. He’s the former editor of OC Weekly. He resigned from the publication last year in protest against budget cuts.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll look at a proposition on the November ballot around rent control. Stay with us.

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