Two years ago, Democratic newcomers across the state were swept into Congress atop a frothing “blue wave” of anti-Trump fervor — a result that only became apparent late in the vote count. This year’s election has been playing out a little like 2018 in reverse. 

Post It logo

This time the Democrats led early on, only to see their margins shrink as in-person Republican votes were tallied later. Of the seven seats that flipped from the GOP to the Democrats in 2018, only three now clearly remain in Democratic control. Two went to GOP challengers, and two still remain too close to call.

On Friday, freshman Democratic Rep. Gil Cisneros conceded defeat to his Republican opponent Young Kim in the tri-county district that binds northern Orange County to the corners of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. This came after Kim spent the week since Election Day running up her lead. That’s exactly the opposite of what happened in the midterms when Cisneros, a political neophyte who used his lottery winnings to finance his campaign, was declared the victor over Kim after a week of ballot counting steadily pushed the results into the Democratic column. 

Earlier this week, Rep. Harley Rouda met the same reversal of fortune. After nabbing a longtime Republican stronghold along the Orange County coast in 2018, Rouda lost this time to county supervisor and local GOP favorite Michelle Steel.

Two more Democrats are in trouble. In the Central Valley, TJ Cox, who narrowly squeaked out a victory over incumbent Republican Rep. David Valadao in 2018, is now trailing his former opponent by a little more than 1 percentage point. And in the Simi Valley’s 25th congressional district, which flipped blue in 2018 only to fall back under GOP control in a special election earlier this year, Rep. Mike Garcia is leading Democratic Assemblymember Christy Smith, although the margin is extremely close.

Why then has the blue wave of 2018 yielded to a red riptide?

The fact that both winning candidates do not look like your typical GOP office holder may have helped, given that Orange County is the most diverse counties in the state, said Linda Trinh Vo, chair of the Asian American Studies department at UC Irvine. Both Kim and Steel are first-generation immigrants. Together, along with Democrat Marilyn Strickland of Washington state, they will be the first Korean American women elected to Congress. 

Kim is a former member of the California Assembly. Steel is a county supervisor. The two were able to draw upon their “political experience and a base they had built within Orange County and particularly within the Asian American community,” said Vo. 

Given President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and his usage of terms like the “China virus” and the “kung flu” to describe the pandemic, “running two Asian American women on the Republican ticket was probably something that Republicans saw as a win,” she said. The two candidates offered Orange County’s diverse but still sometimes conservative-leaning electorate a palatable down-ballot option.

Republicans were less successful when it came to the state Legislature: As final ballots are still being counted, they’ve gained a single seat in the 80-member Assembly, while losing at least two seats to Democrats in the 40-member state Senate. Both chambers will retain a supermajority of Dems.

The surges in turnout that tend to come during presidential election years historically have benefitted Democrats, whose base is made up of more young, lower-income and less reliable voters. 

Turnout this year could match the highwater mark of 2008, when nearly 80% of registered California voters cast a ballot.

Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California, said the election excitement was bipartisan this year.

“It wasn’t going to be a blue wave, easy time for Democrats because Republicans were motivated to turn out too,” he said. An October poll by the institute found that roughly three-quarters of both Democratic and Republican voters were “more enthusiastic” than usual about the presidential election. 

Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, noted that the 2018 election gave Republicans very little to be excited about — especially in California. “The governor’s race was a foregone conclusion and the Senate race featured two Democrats.”

Democrats in recent years have dominated politics in California. But the 2018 election still looked to many like an inflection point. The California GOP lost half of its congressional delegation — its 14 seats out of 53 were reduced to a measly seven. 

Of even greater symbolic importance was the party’s rout in Orange County. Once considered the beating heart of conservative political power in the state, the county was left with an entirely blue congressional representation for the first time since the 1930s.

The victories of Kim and Steel add two new splashes of red to the map. 

“The message out of Orange County was a very mixed one,” said Baldassare. “It’s truly a purple part of the state now where things can flip back and forth.”

They can even flip back and forth in the same election. 

Though ballots are still being counted, the preliminary results in Orange County show that majorities in one out of 10 precincts in Rouda’s 48th congressional district backed Biden for president while voting for the Republican Steel for Congress. 

Across a very polarized American electorate, “ticket splitting” is an increasingly rare phenomenon. But that purple cluster of dots in the graphic is evidence that at least some voters in Orange County were willing to vote across party lines. In such a competitive race, they may be responsible for Steel’s narrow win. 

Over the past four years, political observers have fixated on well-educated suburban voters, who have traditionally gravitated to the conservative politics of the GOP but who have been turned off by President Donald Trump’s brashness and nativism. That demographic, disproportionately represented in Orange County, helped give Democrats their House majority in the last midterms.

In a panel discussion hosted by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, former Democratic Assembly Speaker John Pérez said that in 2018, GOP-leaning voters dissatisfied with the president “only had one way to express their dislike of Trump — that was in these congressional races,” he said. 

But this year, they had the opportunity to cast their anti-Trump vote by supporting Biden while still voting their conservative ideological convictions down ballot. 

In a rare bit of overlap, Fred Whitaker, chair of the Orange County GOP, agreed with the former Democratic speaker. 

“In 2018, to the extent that the midterms were a referendum on the way the president spoke or acted and the fact that some people didn’t like that, those races were very close but they flipped the other way,” he said. But this year, “they came back to the fold.”

Via the Post It, CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher shares frequent updates from the (socially distanced) 2020 campaign trail.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions:

Ben covers housing policy and previously covered California politics and elections. Prior to these roles at CalMatters, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and...