GOP Losing Its Grip on Orange County: California Hispanics Make Difference

Article excerpt

SANTA ANA, Calif. - Republicans are no longer a majority in Orange County, the nation's most reliable large center of the party's support through most of the 20th century.

Republican voter registration last month dropped below 50 percent in the once reliably conservative county of 2.7 million, causing some of the party's campaign managers to warn that to hold its own in contesting California in national elections the Republican Pary will have to begin seeking new sources of support elsewhere in the state.

"It's been a truism in California politics for many years that a Republican has to come out of Orange County with a 250,000-vote margin in order to overcome the big Democratic majorities in Los Angeles and San Francisco," said consultant Arnold Steinberg, who managed Republican Richard Riordan's two successful campaigns for mayor of Los Angeles.

"This makes it very hard to come up with the 250,000."

Reflecting the shift in Orange County, the state Republican Party staged its convention in Anaheim in September, and the local congresswoman, state legislators and mayor were all Democrats.

That's a shift of earthquake proportions in the county that gave Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan their political starts and sent an all-Republican delegation to Congress for decades before Bob Dornan was upset by Democrat Loretta Sanchez in 1996.

"The big reason is the very significant increase in the numbers of Latinos in Orange County," said Allan Hoffenblum, another Republican campaign manager.

"The situation is no different in Orange County than elsewhere in California."

The bulk of the 10,618 new voters who have registered in the county since last year's election have been Hispanics, and they have registered Democratic by almost a 3-to-1 margin.

In 1998, 82.5 percent of California Hispanics voted for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

"This is a wake-up call for us," said John McGraw, the state party chairman, who added that the Orange County trend demonstrates the Republicans must attract more voters in other areas if they are to remain competitive in California. …