Orange County as a Political Bellwether


            New Orleans   The headline includes the words, “…Orange County as Harbinger of 2022 Midterms” in the New York Times.  I’m not sure whether my father would be laughing his butt off or screaming at the winds of change, but I know one thing:  he would have been scratching his head in total surprise.  How could this longtime conservative bastion be a bellwether of anything?

My dad was born and raised in Orange County, California. The birth certificate I inherited says Tustin, a smaller town.  The family also lived in Santa Anna, then not much bigger than Tustin, but now a sizeable city of over 330,000 people.  He went to high school in Orange.  His was a German Lutheran family.  His parents stopped speaking German during the war.  My grandfather’s name was Erdmann, which means “man of the soil” in German.  He and all of our Rathke ancestors were always farmers, as was he, but when times got bad in Minnesota and South Dakota he migrated to California.  His cousin, who did the same thing, blamed converting too quickly from plow horses to a tractor, which they couldn’t sustain.

My grandfather became the foreman at an orange ranch, as they called it, but for the rest of us that would be an orange grove when there were so many oranges grown there, it gave the county its name.  My dad knew some Spanish from helping his father at the ranch and talking to the workers there.  When it would get cold in New Orleans, he would talk about he and his siblings helped his father keep the smug pots going all night to keep the trees from freezing.  There are streets in Orange named after my uncle and my cousins by the suburb built out of the grove they sold to developers in the 1960s, as Orange became a commuter cluster for an expanding Los Angeles.

I can remember as a boy, when we visited my grandparents on our every five-year trip, when they lived in Santa Anna and helping around the chicken coop.  In later years, I remember the house in Orange within a shout of the Lutheran Church which was the center of my grandmother’s life then.  Their house was across the street from the school yard.  There was a flagpole that commemorated those who died in WWII, including my uncle George, my dad’s older brother who I never met.

My dad was a rarity.  When going to California was a mecca for many, it was anathema for him.  He thanked the military for taking him away during the war, sending him to college, and making it possible for him to never return.  He was a Republican, he would say, until we were transferred to Louisiana, and in those days, he claimed he would never be able to vote unless he reregistered as a Democrat.

Now with 3.2 million people, and Latinx majorities in Orange and Santa Anna, it’s a wildly different place.  It was news when this Republican bastion signaled the change and made four Congressional districts Democratic in 2018, before losing two in 2020, going from Biden at the same time, and now in the news favoring Governor Newsom in the recall election.

Now one politico is saying, “Orange County is national ground zero for the realignment of college-educated voters away from Trump’s Republican Party.”  A savvy political Congressman is calling the county “a barometer” of the 2022 “battleground” for that election.

My dad would be shaking his head about how upside-down the political world has changed over what would now be his 100 years, if he were still alive.  Now, Louisiana above the city level is almost all Republican and blood red in the presidential elections, while Orange County is adding 22000 new Democratic registrants against less than 1000 Republicans and California is deep sea blue.

Who says change isn’t possible?