STATE ROUTE 91 winds south from the hilly exurbs of Riverside County, a place of citrus orchards, indoor shooting ranges and Make-California-Great-Again signs. Turning off past Saddleback church, one of America’s largest megachurches, the road heads towards the richer, Democratic suburbs of coastal Orange County. At Huntingdon Beach, the congressman for the district, Dana Rohrabacher, is into his stump speech. “What a wonderful place to live,” he shouts. “But the quality of life will not survive if we have open borders and millions of …” His peroration is drowned out by the roar of the crowd. But the biggest noise in Californian politics is the gathering murmur of a Democratic wave. It could sweep away a decades-old Republican dominance of this area.
Southern California is a treasure trove of Democratic target seats in the mid-term elections to be held on November 6th. Seven Republicans are defending seats in districts that Hillary Clinton won in the presidential contest of 2016. That is half the Grand Old Party’s delegation in the state. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to seize control of the House of Representatives. California could take them a third of the way there. If there is a blue wave, with Democrats winning 30 or more extra seats, many will have to come from the Golden State. In hope of such a result, the party is throwing money at what were once solid Republican seats. In the 22nd district, where Republicans have out-voted Democrats by two to one since 2002, the Democratic challenger has raised over $4m, ten times as much as any of his predecessors.
As usual, special factors make each race look unique. In one seat—the 25th in Los Angeles County—the Democratic challenger is a bisexual, gun-owning goat farmer who used to run a charity for the homeless. In another—the 50th district near San Diego—the Republican incumbent has been indicted for illegally spending campaign contributions on his family rabbit. He has also accused his opponent of infiltrating Congress on behalf of Islamic terrorism, saying the man’s grandfather had been the architect of the Black September massacre at the Munich Olympic games (the grandfather was indeed involved, but his grandson never met him, is a Christian, and has condemned the massacre). California’s races are also unusual because, in 2011, a new redistricting body redrew some boundaries to make them more competitive.
But behind these special factors lie two trends that link them all. One is demographic change. The other is the suburban unpopularity of President Trump. Five of California’s most competitive races are in or near Orange County, the densely-populated suburbs between Los Angeles and San Diego, which were once an unassailable Republican fortress. “The OC” incubated Barry Goldwater’s conservatism and was home to Richard Nixon. Until 2016, its voters had last backed a Democratic presidential candidate in 1936, when they voted for FDR. But the fortress has fallen to shifts in the population. Orange County, which used to be the colour of pith, is now minority majority with 34% of its population Hispanic and 21% Asian. Its voter registration reflects the change. It is 35% Republican, 34% Democrat and 27% independent, the definition of a competitive district.
The change that has most salience, though, is the rise in the number of university-educated people, especially women. In four of the five closest-fought districts in the county, graduates make up 28-34% of voters. Fully three-quarters of California’s female college graduates disapprove of Mr Trump (compared with 58% of male graduates and 61% of women who did not graduate). More than two-thirds say they will vote Democratic.
Such terrain would be tough for Republicans at the best of times. But the personality of Mr Trump aggravates the demographic itch, which is the other trend. Californians are on the opposite side of many of the president’s battles. Obamacare, for example, gave health insurance to three times as many uninsured people in California as in any other state. California’s attorney-general has sued the Trump administration 44 times on issues ranging from the environment to net neutrality.
Given all that, it is perhaps surprising that Democrats are not doing even better. In a recent poll by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the Democrats are ahead, or tied in all the races polled. But their lead is outside the margin of error in only two. That implies that if there were a swing back to Republicans, the party of Trump could hold most of its Californian seats. A swing the other way could see all seven seats fall to the Democrats. With hardly any voters undecided, the difference between those outcomes will be turnout, where Republicans have always had an edge.
But there are two differences this year. One is that college-educated women vote in large numbers, offsetting some of the Republicans’ turnout advantage. The other is that Democrats seem fired up. “I’ve never seen the energy and the sort of investment in the field that I’ve seen this year,” says Jared Rivera, a political organiser for the service employees’ union. “It’s not even close.” In primary elections held earlier this year to choose candidates, Democratic turnout in the Orange County seats was 14-15 points higher than it had been in 2014, the most recent comparable year. Republican turnout was lower by the same amount. If that were a precursor to a big blue wave, it would give the opposition party control of the House. More remarkably, it would give Democrats political control of Orange County for the first time in 82 years.