Rebuilding the ‘Orange Curtain’: Republicans Retrench in Southern California

May 23, 2021 Updated: May 25, 2021

Orange County conservatives are returning to their roots under the banner of a group that former President Ronald Reagan often called “the conscience of the Republican Party.”

New California Republican Assembly (CRA) chapters are forming in Orange, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and San Clemente/Dana Point. The CRA’s mission is to engage a broader base of conservatives, recruit strong candidates, and win back seats in the historically red county, according to Costa Mesa Republican Assembly (CMRA) President Jennye Bigelow.

“People are hungry for authentic, genuine, principled, constitutional conservatives who are servant leaders to the people who elect them. Republican elected officials must embody these qualities to coalesce support,” Bigelow told The Epoch Times.

Seizing momentum from the grassroots effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom, Bigelow and others have been working to rebuild, reorganize, and strengthen the GOP base. With 77 members, the CMRA is now the largest CRA chapter.

“CMRA is heading this up in collaboration with CRA and its affiliate chapters. We are pushing this statewide,” said Bigelow.

The membership growth mirrors efforts throughout the county to reestablish “the Orange Curtain,” a longtime stronghold of GOP voters. By combining their efforts and unifying under the conservative banner, local groups hope to galvanize voters in the county to return to tradition.

The ‘Orange Curtain’

Bigelow said the CRA plans to mentor candidates about policy, and endorse those who will “stand firm for people’s rights” and carry the message to restore conservative family values, fiscal responsibility, and smaller government with integrity.

CRA spokesman Craig DeLuz says Costa Mesa chapter members have shown they’re proud conservatives who reflect and effectively communicate traditional principles and values.

“What they’re doing is making it cool to be conservative again,” he said. “They’re bringing people back to the party.”

Before the 2018 midterm elections, when the Democrats flipped four congressional seats in the county, the GOP stronghold was known as the “Orange Curtain,” according to Republican political consultants. The term refers to the line separating Orange and Los Angeles counties.

“That area used to be, for the longest time, the hotbed of Republican politics,” DeLuz said. But the GOP “lost traction” in many parts of California—in particular, Orange County—“as the party started to steer away from conservative principles and ideals.”

The Return of the CRA

At a CMRA event last month, CRA President Johnnie Morgan urged Republicans who may be contemplating the idea of leaving California to stay and fight against government policies that are driving people out.

“The CRA has a goal of turning California red again,” Morgan said. “It all begins on the local level. We have to work from the ground up.”

The CRA, founded in 1935, is an affiliate of the National Federation of Republican Assemblies (NFRA). It is the conservative wing and the oldest, largest volunteer organization chartered by the California Republican Party. Morgan said there are currently more than 35 CRA chapters in the state, with new groups forming.

The CRA is one of the fastest-growing Republican groups in the state, DeLuz said. More than five years ago, CRA membership had dropped to nearly 100; it has since rebounded to include about 1,500 members.

“We’re actively and aggressively recruiting people to start chapters in various different parts of the state, and we’ve seen a significant growth in our membership in the last year alone,” Morgan said.

DeLuz said the resurgence “has a lot to do with the fact that we are taking an active role in once again being the Republicans in the Republican Party.”

The CRA has recently developed a new grassroots policy program to help people write letters to politicians who are voting on specific legislation of interest to conservatives, he added.

Randall Avila, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Orange County (OCGOP), told The Epoch Times that elections have become more contentious in recent years, with Democrats spending more money on campaigns and aggressively targeting county seats.

“We never really thought that Orange County was going to be this competitive … in what was [a] traditionally red county,” Avila said. “But obviously, the conditions on the ground have changed, and that calls for the party to kind of recalibrate where we are and what we’re doing after each [election] cycle.”

Higher stakes and harder-fought campaign battles make volunteer efforts to regroup and replan even more crucial in terms of strategy, Avila said.

“We’re 100 percent supportive of the organization and the chapters here.”

Epoch Times Photo
Jennye Bigelow speaks at a Costa Mesa Republican Assembly event in Costa Mesa, Calif., on April 25, 2021. (Courtesy of Costa Mesa Brief)

Election Integrity

The Costa Mesa CRA chapter has rallied to support Fix California Now, a campaign led by Richard Grenell. The former Trump administration official, who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence, spoke at a CMRA event in Costa Mesa last month.

Part of Fix California Now’s mission is to secure free and fair elections.

“Election integrity is a huge piece” of rebuilding the party, Bigelow said, adding that her deceased grandfather is still listed as a registered voter.

“I looked him up. He is still on the voter rolls, and he passed away 60 years ago. That’s how bad our voter rolls are,” she said.

Though many conservatives desire a return to traditional in-person voting and an end to both ballot harvesting and unsolicited vote-by-mail ballots, Bigelow said Republicans must learn to adapt more quickly to changes in state election laws to win seats.

“I feel like we were asleep at the wheel when it came to ballot harvesting,” she said. “The Democrats got way ahead of us on that, and then pretty much blindsided us. … It’s here, it’s legal, and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we need to take advantage of that opportunity, because Democrats do.”

Because Democrats hold the governorship and supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate, Republicans don’t have the power to prevent them from changing election laws, Bigelow said.

As an example, she cited Assembly Bill 37 (AB 37), which would require every registered voter in the state to receive a vote-by-mail ballot for all future elections, thus making COVID-style elections permanent. Assemblyman Kelly Seyarto (R-Murrieta), the lone Republican on the chamber’s Elections Committee, was outvoted 6–1 by his Democratic counterparts to move AB 37 forward in the legislative process.

Election Integrity Project California (EIPCa), a nonpartisan watchdog group, estimates that hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots were sent to questionable registrants for the 2020 general election because of inaccurate state voter rolls.

Challenges Ahead

If Republicans expect to gain ground in the county and statewide, they’ll have to work harder to connect with voters, set differences aside to prevent vote-splitting, and strive for greater unity, Bigelow said.

She cited the “disjointed effort” of Republicans during the March special election for a seat on the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Republicans received the majority of votes but they were split among multiple candidates, allowing Democrat Katrina Foley to win the seat.

“Everyone is kind of doing their own thing,” said Bigelow. “Everybody has their own ideas, instead of bringing those ideas to the table and trying to create a collaborative plan to all move together. We all need to get on the same page and work as a team.”

Reunifying successfully will take “a lot of hard work and dedication, with a fresh, modern approach,” she said. “The old ways are not working.”

She noted that dirty politics, pay-to-pay politicians, heavy influence from labor unions, dark money from special interest groups, and a lack of transparency in local government are just a few of the obstacles the county faces.

Too many politicians are putting emotions before facts and exploiting the pandemic for political gain, according to Bigelow. The media and activists are spreading “false narratives painting Republicans and America as systemically racist,” resulting in “divisive identity politics and manipulation of voter laws.”

Bigelow said former President Donald Trump’s “America First” platform and promise to drain “the Swamp” resonated with conservatives, breathed life back into the party, and got many No Party Preference (NPP) voters in California “off the fence.”

“Everybody has a new set of eyes in the way they view government. I personally think that it unifies us. It has really motivated people,” she said.

“I feel that in 2022, we’re going to have a big ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment here in Orange County, because I think we are unifying. It has opened our eyes.”