Orange County, California, has gone through a dramatic transformation in its political landscape over the past century. From its inception in 1889, when it broke away from its northwestern neighbor Los Angeles, to the present day, Orange County has seen a shift from a Republican stronghold to a competitive political environment. This article will explore the history of Orange County politics and how it has changed over time. In the early days of Orange County, it was led by ranchers, sheepherders, beekeepers, citrus growers, and fiercely independent farmers. This independent spirit was reflected in the county's politics, as it consistently voted for Republican candidates for 20 years.
However, this began to change in the 1960s with the suburban explosion. The Republican Party's strong approach to the Orange County community and the encouragement of Asian Americans to run for office brought many back to the party. This mobilization to the right gave Orange County a national reputation for hardline conservatism. Walter Knott, famous for berry farms, sponsored the five-day “Christian Anti-Communist School” to help Orange County see the world he saw, a world in which big government and liberalism led to Soviet domination. This further entrenched conservative values in Orange County politics.
In addition, the John Birch Society had 38 chapters in Orange County by the 1970s. This ultra-right organization was known for its conspiratorial-minded views and called Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower a communist. In new coastal cities such as Dana Point and San Clemente, Hobie Alter, Gordon “Grubby” Clark and John Severson helped create a completely new culture around an old Polynesian sport that would become a multi-billion dollar surfing industry. This new culture helped to bring about changes in Orange County's physical, demographic and political landscape. Today, Orange County remains one of the most important electoral counties in the nation, as at least two districts are still very competitive.
I have continued to report on the increasingly scathing nature of Orange County politics and elections, and statements from electoral districts support that election after election. Orange County residents are in a unique position this year to hold their elected officials accountable like never before. If so, it would be the first time since the 1930s that Orange County would not have Republican representation in the House of Representatives. The Times reported that “yesterday the old days of watchmen were revived in the orchards of Orange County when a man was about to die and dozens were injured in nursing homes.” This shows just how much Orange County politics have changed over time. Given demographic and registration trends, it is likely that the Orange County of the future will be very different from what it has been historically. Changes are already occurring from north to south as Orange County continues to evolve politically. Orange County has gone from being a Republican stronghold to becoming a credible target of opportunities for Democrats seeking to gain control of the United States.
Mobilizing to the right during the suburban explosion of the 1960s gave Orange County a national reputation for hardline conservatism with a touch of “crazy country,” in the words of Fortune magazine. The campaign that followed showed friction in the Orange County Republican Party as leaders tried to reduce the field. In conclusion, Orange County has gone through an incredible transformation over its 130-year history. From its inception as an independent county led by ranchers and farmers to its current status as one of the most important electoral counties in America, Orange County has seen dramatic changes in its political landscape.
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