In Orange County, the Recall’s Defeat Echoes Years of GOP Erosion

Gail Grigaux at her home in Ladera Ranch, Calif., Sept. 17, 2021. (Allison Zaucha/The New York Times) LADERA RANCH, Calif. — When Gail Grigaux first moved to Ladera Ranch in Orange County from the East Coast more than 15 years ago, she knew she had arrived in the conservative heart of Southern California.

“If I met anybody new, I would assume they were Republican,” said Grigaux, 53, a teacher’s assistant.

It often felt that way, even as recently as last year when supporters of former President Donald Trump drove golf carts with Trump flags and sold Trump paraphernalia on street corners of the master-planned suburban community. But the Democratic side has been nearly as visible lately. A Ladera Ranch social justice Facebook group formed.

“I got my little Black Lives Matter sign,” Grigaux said.

Ladera Ranch, much like Orange County itself, is changing.

In 2018, Democrats flipped four House seats in Orange County, turning the county entirely Democratic for the first time in the modern era. But in 2020, Democrats ceded two of those seats back to the Republicans even as Trump lost both Orange County and California overall.

Now, in 2021, Democrats have swung Orange County back once again, helping Gov. Gavin Newsom stop the Republican attempt to recall him. Fifty-two percent of voters in Orange County, including Grigaux, opposed the recall, compared with 48% in favor, though the results are still not official.

The county’s seesawing status has consequences far beyond its 3.2 million residents, as strategists of both parties see it as a bellwether of key suburban and diversifying House districts nationwide in the 2022 midterms.

Many of the touchstones of Orange County’s storied conservatism — the birthplace (and resting place) of Richard M. Nixon, the incubator of the right-wing John Birch Society, the political base of Ronald Reagan — are now decades out of date. The county has steadily transformed into one of the nation’s premier electoral battlegrounds, a place where political and demographic cross currents are all colliding.

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