One of the more striking results of the 2018 mid-term elections has been the destruction of Orange County, California, as a Republican safe harbor. It's gone largely unmentioned, though, that the county hasn't just been reliably Republican until now—it also housed one of the main conservative political machines in the state—one that profoundly influenced both state and national politics.
The county's population grew rapidly during and after World War II thanks to the local presence of defense and aerospace contractors. Despite those companies' dependence on federal government spending, the county drew many more conservative residents who sought to build a low-tax, low-density, whiter suburban haven, distinct from the more urbanized and diverse Los Angeles County just to the north.
By the 1950s and '60s, as the volunteer political "club" movement was taking off across the state, activist organizations were thriving in Orange County. The county was a locus of activity for the Barry Goldwater campaign in 1964 and helped promote Ronald Reagan's early political career and put him in the governor's office in 1967. It would later be the organizational home of the Proposition 13 tax revolt of 1978.
The Lincoln Club of Orange County, a conservative Republican organization with county chapters all over the state, was founded in Orange County in 1962 following Richard Nixon's loss in the state gubernatorial race. The Lincoln Club has proven a powerful force in state and local Republican politics. Its members and other local Republican leaders were instrumental in recruiting and grooming conservative candidates and in weeding out those who they found to be insufficiently committed to the cause.
One telling example of this power was when moderate Republican Judy Ryan challenged the fiercely conservative United States Representative Bob Dornan of Garden Grove in the 1992 primaries. County conservative leaders rushed to defend Dornan from Ryan's challenge. The chair of the county's Republican Central Committee left menacing phone messages on Ryan's answering machine and threatened to get her husband fired from his job at the Heinz Corporation. I spoke with Lincoln Club leader Buck Johns when I was conducting research for my 2009 book No Middle Ground, and he described the GOP's strategy as such:
We didn't hit her, but we threatened her a lot. We basically said that it would cost us a lot of money in defeating her and she doesn't have a chance. This is not her turn to run. She can put in as much money as she wants to. We will raise a lot of money and we will pummel her. She will come out of this candidacy all bruised up. And if you want to get into the political process, that's a bad place to start.
Other Orange County leaders I spoke with volunteered accounts from the 1970s and '80s of protecting their preferred incumbents by physically preventing challengers from running for office. One group temporarily kidnapped a potential candidate to keep him from filing to run; another attempted to ram the car of a moderate on his way to file.
Despite these hardball tactics, county conservative leaders proved to be quite pragmatic under some circumstances. Many Lincoln Club leaders, for example, backed Arnold Schwarzenegger's bid in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, despite his moderate stances on many social issues. As Johns explained to me:
I've been friends with [the conservative gubernatorial candidates] for a long time; I've supported both in past campaigns; I know those guys and their families and they've been plowing and planting in the vineyards for a very long time. Schwarzenegger has not. But the objective is to be victorious.
A lot of what helped conservatives succeed in their statewide influence was their numbers; they could turn out the Republican vote. Even as California became a steadily more Democratic state, Orange County would reliably send a group of conservative Republicans to Sacramento and Washington, and state Republicans relied on the county for its leadership. In the mid-1990s, the last time Republicans controlled the statehouse, most of its leadership hailed from Orange County, and it was Orange County conservatives who led the 1995 recall of a Republican assembly speaker whom they felt was insufficiently committed to the party's efforts.
But those county leaders could not stave off demographic change forever. A steady influx of Latinos into helped turn the county blue, and Orange County as a whole voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. As a result of the 2018 elections, now many Democrats represent Orange County in the State Assembly and Senate, and no Republicans represent the county in the U.S. Congress.
This doesn't mean that the Republican machine is dead in Orange County, of course. Several of the county's congressional seats were won by very narrow margins, and Republicans could easily win those districts back in a more favorable year for their party. And just because a party loses some general elections doesn't mean its political organizers lack influence. If groups like the Lincoln Club are still critical to determining who does and who doesn't get the GOP nomination in that county, they can still be a powerful political force. As journalist Frank Kent wrote nearly a century ago:
It makes no difference whether the candidates who pass through the gate are knocked down in the general election or not, the next set of candidates must pass through the primary gate just the same. It ought to be plain, then, that so long as the machine controls the primaries, it is in a position to limit the choice of the voters in the general election to its choice in the primaries.
Nonetheless, the 2018 elections mark a substantial shift for the political history of Orange County and California. The state's Republican leadership is now further inland; the wealthy and populous coastal regions are almost uniformly Democratic. The Orange County Republican organization that built up and tore down state and national leaders is unlikely to have that kind of influence anymore. Like the Gold Rush, it has been relegated to the state's colorful past.