Each day, Summer Bailey saw the congressional campaign signs staked into the succulent greenery near the entrance to Balboa Island in the heart of Newport Beach.
One belonged to Max Ukropina, a Republican businessman. The other was a sign for former GOP Assemblyman Scott Baugh. Both candidates are vying for Rep. Katie Porter’s seat in Congress, hoping to flip the Democratic-leaning district to Republicans as Porter runs for the U.S. Senate.
Last month, Bailey decided to add a third sign into the mix, one that focused on abortion.
The small white poster read: “Both are anti-choice” in blue letters, with red arrows pointing to Ukropina and Baugh’s signs. When hers was removed, she put up another .
Bailey, 60, a nonpartisan voter, calls the issue of women’s bodily autonomy her “war cry.”
“I know a lot of pro-choice Republicans, both men and women, who might not choose to vote for a candidate based on that issue,” she said. “But I want every single Republican out there to know that this year if you vote your party, you’re voting against women and you’re voting against the bodily autonomy of the majority of Americans.”
Still, Bailey worries abortion may get lost among the host of other issues voters are grappling with this election even as Democrats nationally continue to push the issue ahead of the March 5 primary.
Since the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, abortion policy and the push for a federal ban on the procedure in the Republican-controlled House have been at the forefront of Democratic campaigns. But how well the issue mobilizes voters in the four Orange County-based districts that are expected to be among the nation’s most competitive in this election remains unclear.
The majority of Orange County voters, mirroring California as a whole, support abortion access . In 2022, about 57.2% of voters in the county backed Proposition 1, which enshrined abortion rights in the California Constitution.
That showing of support came even as the majority of O.C. voters cast a ballot in favor of Republicans running in statewide elections, including for Sen. Brian Dahle for governor over incumbent Gavin Newsom.
In the 47th and 49th congressional districts support for abortion was even higher, ranking at 61%. Those districts largely run along Orange County’s coast with the 49th district extending into San Diego.
Support for the measure in the 40th and 45th districts were slightly lower than the county as a whole at about 55%, voter data show. The 40th congressional district includes Orange County’s canyon communities and extends into Riverside and San Bernardino counties, while the 45th district includes Little Saigon and extends into a section of Los Angeles County.
Beth Miller, a GOP strategist, is skeptical that the focus on abortion will drive an increase in voter turnout, particularly in swing districts like those in Orange County.
“Democrats want to keep it as an issue and that may be a good strategy in other parts of the country,” Miller said. “I just don’t think this issue is going to have the kind of impact that it may once have had given the protections that are in place in California.”
But Democrats are confident voters will rally behind the issue despite it not appearing on the ballot in California.
Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized reproductive rights during a visit to San Jose last month, warning that Republicans could enact a federal ban on abortion if they take control of Congress. She told Californians to stay “vigilant” and has called reproductive freedom “one of the biggest issues in this election.”
In the 47th District, where Bailey lives, the top two Democratic candidates — Joanna Weiss and Dave Min — have emphasized their abortion-rights stances in campaign advertisements.
Ukropina has said he favors leaving abortion policy up to the states. Baugh told The Times in an interview that he is “pro-life” with the exceptions of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. He added that he would not advocate or vote in favor of a federal abortion ban.
In late January, EMILYs List, a liberal group that backs female candidates who favor abortion rights, announced that its super PAC, Women Vote, funded a $1-million ad buy in support of Weiss.
In the advertisement, a narrator warns that Republicans in Washington, D.C., are pushing ahead on a national ban.
“It’s why we need Democrat Joanna Weiss in Congress — the only one we can trust to take them on,” the ad continues. “In Congress, she’ll always protect our reproductive rights and freedoms.”
The buy marked the biggest independent expenditure for California House races so far this cycle.
A spokesperson for EMILY’s List emphasized in a statement to The Times the importance of keeping the district blue if Democrats want to take control of the House and influence abortion policy on a federal level.
“Extremist anti-choice politicians won’t stop until they deny every woman in the nation their right to make their own health care decisions,” said Danni Wang.
Meredith Conroy, a political science professor at Cal State University San Bernardino, believes abortion will be a mobilizing force, particularly among younger, more liberal voters.
“I believe young voters are least enthusiastic about a Trump/Biden rematch, but an issue like abortion could be enough to keep them engaged,” she said.
The conversation around abortion has also been heating up in Orange County’s 45th District, where Republican Rep. Michelle Steel is facing with four Democratic challengers, all of whom have emphasized their commitment to reproductive rights.
Candidate Kim Nguyen-Penaloza, a Democrat and Garden Grove councilwoman, has criticized Steel for “flip-flopping” on her position on abortion.
Steel’s camp fired back, saying that Steel has not changed her position, which is allowing for abortions only in cases of rape, incest or the health of the mother.
In 2021— a year before the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade — Steel cosponsored the Life at Conception Act, a bill that aimed to recognize a fertilized egg as a person with equal protections under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Last January, House Republicans introduced identical legislation, which Steel signed onto roughly a year later. Days after she pledged her support, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out an email blast criticizing her for “choosing to stand with extreme MAGA efforts to ban abortion nationwide no matter how unpopular or dangerous these relentless attacks are.”
Steel’s campaign spokesperson Lance Trover dismissed the attack, saying: “Washington Democrats have spent four years lying about Michelle’s record, mocking her accent and making sexist attacks.”
He added that Southern California voters trust Steel on issues that are critical in her district, including lowering the cost of living and taking on the Chinese Communist Party.
Miller said though some moderate O.C. Republicans and swing voters might support abortion rights, the procedure may not be their top issue when it comes to selecting someone to send to Congress.
Ultimately, voters this cycle have a lot to think about given the state of the economy and inflation, worries about crime and education, she said.
“The question is are they willing to side with the candidate who speaks to them on those issues but may have a different opinion on abortion?”