SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A California county long known as a national GOP stronghold now has more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Orange County’s Registrar of Voters reported Wednesday there are 89 more Democrats than Republicans among its 1.6 million registered voters.
It’s the first time Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in more than four decades, said Neal Kelley, the county’s registrar of voters. The county between Los Angeles and San Diego was home to President Richard Nixon and long known as a conservative bastion.
The parties each have about 547,000 registered voters, while 441,000 registered voters have no party affiliation.
The ascendancy of the county Democrats mirrors a long-running trend in California, which has grown increasingly Democratic. Up until several decades ago, the state was a reliable win for the GOP in presidential elections. Today, Democrats hold every statewide office; dominate both chambers of the Legislature and command a nearly 4 million edge over the GOP in voter registrations. The last Republican to carry the state in a presidential election was George H.W. Bush, in 1988.
Republicans, meanwhile, have drifted into third-party status in the state, outnumbered by Democrats and independents.
In a sign of what was to come, Hillary Clinton carried Orange County in the 2016 presidential election, the first Democrat to do so since the Depression era.
The county is also part of a national shift that has seen one-time Republican suburban strongholds reshaped into political battlegrounds, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean at the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.
Levy pointed to New York’s Nassau County and the suburban counties around Philadelphia as other examples of former GOP bastions that have become welcoming to Democratic candidates.
A major factor in the change is demographics — new immigrants, often people of color, who “bring their Democratic voting inclinations with them,” Levy said.
“All over the country, these older suburbs have been evolving away from the Republican Party,” he added.
In Orange County, Republicans still hold many county and local offices but Democrats say demographic change with growing Latino and Asian communities and opposition to President Donald Trump helped them flip a cluster of congressional seats last year and draw new registered voters.
Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County, said the shift sends a message to other Republican states and counties that they too can turn their regions blue.
“It can happen,” she said, adding that new Democrats include young people and residents concerned about the environment, health care and women’s issues. “We have to help change the hearts and minds of voters to understand that we are the party that will have their best interest in mind.”
Two years ago, Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the county by about 54,000, according to data from the registrar.
Orange County Republican Party chair Fred Whitaker said the focus is now on winning votes from residents who aren’t members of any political party — a group whose ranks have grown in California. He also said he believes his party holds an edge in districts they’re focused on for the next elections and has proven success in driving voters to the polls.
“Winning elections is about turning out voters,” Whitaker said in a statement. “We are going to fight for our county.”