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Inside the Politics Behind the Race for Third District Supervisor

Analysis: Does the BOS Race Portend 2020 Election?

Election season isn’t yet over for part of Orange County, which, on March 12 will elect a new member to the Orange County Board of Supervisors for the Third District. While the winner of the election will represent portions of Irvine, Mission Viejo and Anaheim Hills as well as Orange, Tustin, North Tustin, Yorba Linda, Villa Park and some of unincorporated O.C., the stakes and political ramifications are much greater.

Loretta Sanchez

The reason this particular race is so consequential is because it is a showdown between the county’s most prominent Democrat for the last two decades — Loretta Sanchez — and the county’s GOP, still reeling from its worst-ever performance in an election last November: The OCGOP lost all of four of its seats in Congress and two state representatives; one in the state Assembly and one in the state Senate.

Normally, a county supervisorial race would not make national headlines, but this one very likely could. To some, it would be a confirmation of the narrative that many on the national media circuit have propagated: Orange County is now a blue (Democrat) county or, at the very least, it is now a purple county. That narrative would be particularly compelling should Sanchez, a former long-serving Democratic congresswoman, win the race.

In many ways, Sanchez is the modern matriarch of O.C. Democrats. At a time when Orange County was overwhelmingly a red county, she broke through to narrowly defeat longtime Republican congressman Bob Dornan in 1996. She held onto the seat for 20 years with consistent formidable challenges from Republican candidates until she retired to run for U.S. Senate in 2016. If Loretta were to win the Third District supervisorial race it would be highly symbolic and cast further doubt on the dominance of the Republican Party in Orange County.

Many political observers believe Sanchez is the frontrunner in the race. That is not simply a byproduct of her name recognition or the momentum Democrats in the community have stemming from November’s election victories. It’s also because local Democrats were able to coalesce around Loretta and eliminate any other challenges from well-known Orange County Democrats. Most notably, former Irvine Mayor Beth Krom withdrew from the supervisorial race. That leaves one prominent Democrat in the race: Loretta Sanchez.

Donald Wager

Orange County Republicans, on the other hand, tried to clear the field and coalesce around one candidate but were unsuccessful. Two prominent Republicans are running for the Board of Supervisors against Sanchez: Irvine Mayor Don Wagner and former Anaheim city councilwoman Kris Murray.

Wagner ought to be the frontrunner in this election given that Irvine voters make up 33 percent of the district’s electorate; he has substantial name recognition as a former state assemblyman for the area; he was once a candidate for state Senate; and is a former elected member of the South Orange County Community College board. Yet the question remains, will he and Murray split the Republican vote, paving the way for an easier victory for Sanchez and Democrats.

Local GOP leaders were able to successfully convince other prominent Republicans to get out of the race. But the presence of just two on the ballot may be enough to tilt the scales. Some GOP leaders have actively encouraged Murray to leave the race to no avail. The efforts have caused some rancor and infighting between various Republicans.

One of the areas of contention is a website launched to criticize Murray for her time on the Anaheim City Council. The website, EnoughMurray.com, was funded by Howard Ahmanson. In a terse email exchange between some local Republican donors, the former Anaheim councilwoman fired back, stating the efforts will further “divide and marginalize” the local GOP. “We don’t have a fighting chance until we stop attacking each other and start working together to rebuild the party,” Murray wrote. “It’s time to reach out in good faith to those who’ve abandoned the OCGOP in large part, due to the bully tactics witnessed in this effort to force a lifelong Republican out of the race.”

Kris Murray

While the Democrats were able to effectively clear the field and unite behind one candidate — and did so quietly without the spat pouring into public view — the Republicans were not.

Further complicating matters was that many influential local right-leaning political groups opted to endorse and support candidates without an interview process, or even the appearance of one, causing more resentment and conflict.

The inability of the local GOP to clear the field of prominent Republicans perhaps foreshadows challenges the party will face in 2020 when they seek to retake the congressional and state legislative seats they lost last year. If Orange County Republicans cannot unite for a special election for the county board of supervisors, can they unite for the bigger elections in 2020? We will have to wait and see.

In the meantime, voters in the Third District have three very viable candidates to choose from all of whom offer different assets for the county board:

Don Wagner has been a steady hand as the mayor of Irvine, navigating difficult policy terrain and coming up with solutions that have benefited the community. His experience in Irvine will be useful in addressing some of the coming challenges facing the county, including the development of county-owned land adjacent to the Great Park.

Kris Murray has deep policy chops and strong ties to the business community. She has also spent significant energy dealing with issues around Orange County’s homeless population, an issue that should be front of mind to whomever is elected to the third district post.

Loretta Sanchez has strong ties to the Democratic congressional delegation currently representing Orange County in Congress. Those relationships, coupled with her own time spent in Congress, mean she has a direct line to the government body that appropriates federal funds to local governments and agencies which could mean significant investment for the county.

The special election for Third District Supervisor will take place on March 12. More info on where to vote, these candidates and other candidates can be found at OCVote.com.