No surprise then, that districts like this one are a top Democratic focus in the 2018 midterms. If Democrats net 24 seats, they'll take back the majority.
No surprise then, that Royce, who has been in office for more than two decades, has at least five potential Democratic challengers — most, if not all of them first-time candidates.
The latest to enter the race: Andy Thorburn, a wealthy businessman and former public school teacher who officially announced his candidacy Tuesday. Thorburn doesn't have the Washington backing as some other candidates, but does have a backstory of being jailed for 30 days while on strike in New Jersey for better teacher wages.
Thorburn is automatically competitive because of the $2 million he's loaned himself to try to win the primary. His campaign says that's more resources than any Democratic challenger currently has in a congressional contest.
Thorburn talks like a Bernie Sanders Democrat with the trade policy of a Republican, a reflection of Orange County's rapidly blurring socio-economic and demographic lines. (The district is roughly a third Hispanic, a third Asian and a third white.)
Thorburn supports raising the minimum wage and getting student loan debt under control. He's for free trade. He likes Obama and Obamacare, he hates Trump. And, above all, he thinks the system is corrupt.
“The system is definitely rigged,” he said, explaining how one needs money or connections to launch a credible run for federal office. “It's been a corrupt system — not corrupt in a bribery sense — but it's a very corrupted system.”
Also challenging Royce is former Obama official Sam Jammal and Mai Khanh Tran, a pediatrician and Vietnamese immigrant who has the backing of the pro-abortion rights political group Emily's List, which says it will spend whatever it takes in this primary.
“In 2018, Democrats are going to flip the House because of candidates like Mai Khanh getting into the fight,” Emily's List president Stephanie Schriock said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times.
Navy veteran and lottery winner Gil Cisneros is also in the race. Only one candidate, former professor Phil Janowicz, voted in the district last year.
All the Democrats challenging Royce make up a healthy number of the two dozen-ish first-time congressional candidates who see an opening in some of California's longest-held Republican seats. Lots of eyes were drawn to the region in November after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), one of the richest and most well-known members of Congress, narrowly won his race.
But there's no recipe for Democrats to unseat these suburban California Republicans. It's not even clear they can.
Republican operatives point out that many of these California Clinton Republicans are veterans who have represented their districts for decades and have a reputation beyond sharing the same party as President Trump. Many are also powerful figures in the Republican Party who can raise money in a flash. Royce is the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and raised more than $4 million for his 2016 reelection. Six months into the 2018 cycle, he has $3 million cash on hand.
Well known and well funded, maybe. Battle tested? Hardly, say Democrats.
Royce stomped his Democratic opponent in November by 14 points, a little-known candidate who raised just $78,000. Democrats say the Orange County area, in the era of Trump, is ripe for a real challenger.
Combine all the California Republicans' votes for an unpopular Obamacare repeal bill, with the area's changing demographics, with a historically unpopular Republican president, and Democrats think they smell blood in the water.
House Democrats' campaign arm has set up a team in Irvine, its first headquarters in the state since 2000, to try to knock out at least nine California Republicans in their efforts to take back the House.
Orange County and Royce's district are Ground Zero.
“There are Republicans who represent the Orange County that existed 20 years ago,” said Drew Godinich, the Western press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Godinich spoke to The Fix fresh off the plane from Washington to move to California. “The area has diversified, gotten younger and has gotten more socially progressive, and these Republicans don't represent Orange County.”
Despite going 0-3 in high-profile special elections earlier this year, Democrats think control of the House is in play next year. But to get there, they'll have to knock off veteran Republicans in California, most likely with an untested Democratic candidate. If Royce's district is any indication, there are lots of Democrats who think they can be the ones to do it.
This post has been updated to include the names of two other candidates running in the Democratic primary for California's 39th district.