Robert Baca’s political compass has always pointed toward the Republican Party, but lately he hasn’t felt as at home in the GOP.

Though he voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections, Baca distances himself from the culture wars that seem to fire up today’s die-hard Republicans. Instead, he wants Washington to tackle the turbulent economy and rising costs of daily life.

He’s been called a RINO — short for “Republican in name only” — when he’s suggested that both parties should work together. He still backs conservative candidates most of the time, but he’s not a sure GOP vote anymore.

“It’s not about the party for me,” said Baca, 46. “It’s about the policy and the person.”

Baca lives in one of four Orange County congressional districts that are expected to be among the nation’s most competitive in the 2024 election as Republicans and Democrats fight to control the House.

Baca, a small-business owner, is also part of an important emerging group in the Orange County political landscape that UC Irvine researchers in a poll published Wednesday described as “modestly partisan” Republicans. This group differs from the traditional GOP voter in a few key areas: they’re wealthier, they’re diverse, they’re more socially liberal and they’re less resistant to being taxed to help solve issues related to climate change and homelessness, said Jon Gould, dean of the UCI School of Social Ecology, who spearheaded the poll.

Once considered a heart of Southern California conservatives, Orange County’s transformation into a more culturally, economically and politically diverse region has forced congressional candidates to find ways to appeal to voters without a strong party preference. Voters such as Baca not only will be pivotal in deciding who Orange County sends to Washington, but also in determining the balance of power in Congress, Gould said.

“The fight is over the independents who could go either way and the voters who are not strongly attached to a party who may simply choose not to vote,” Gould said, adding that Orange County “should be the place that political eyes are glued to for the future of the next Congress.”

Orange County’s demographics have shifted dramatically in the last 20 years. In 2000, slightly more than half of the county’s population was white. Latinos made up roughly 31% and Asians, 13.5% of the population. Today, the majority of Orange County residents are people of color. Roughly 38% of the population is white, while 34% is Latino and 23% is Asian, according to census data.

Two decades ago, Republicans held an 18 percentage point advantage over Democrats in voter registration in Orange County. Today, Democrats enjoy a slight edge.

Orange County has been a political battleground since the 2018 election, when Democrats swept the region’s four congressional seats.

But it hasn’t been an easy fight for Democrats. Republicans reclaimed two congressional seats in 2020 with the election of Rep. Michelle Steel of Seal Beach and Rep. Young Kim of Anaheim Hills, who became two of the first Korean American women to serve in Congress. Their wins came even as President Biden carried the county by 9 percentage points. The 2022 midterms proved uneventful — all Orange County incumbents held their seats.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which has tracked House and Senate races for decades, has listed four Orange County congressional districts, including those held by Steel and Kim, as some of the most competitive races in the nation.

And how well candidates perform could rely significantly on how they woo a growing portion of Orange County voters who aren’t highly partisan.

UCI’s poll, detailed in the report “Red County, Blue County, Orange County,” shows that modestly partisan Republicans in the region have become a “political anomaly.” Unlike strongly partisan party members, who are mostly white, a majority of modestly partisan Republicans are Asian and Latino voters, making them demographically similar to Democrats. Nearly 50% of them earn more than $100,000 per year.

They also don’t share the same cultural agenda as bedrock Republicans. When asked about their view of Walt Disney Co., more than 40% of those surveyed who were moderately attached to the GOP held somewhat favorable feelings toward the brand. Among those strongly attached to the Republican Party, less than 20% held somewhat favorable views of the entertainment giant.

Disney has been embroiled in a high-profile legal and political battle with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, that started last year after the company publicly opposed the Parental Rights in Education Act, often referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation, which DeSantis supported, barred classroom instruction and discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity in some elementary school grades.

The Disney question, Gould says, provides a window into how the modestly attached Republicans view hotly contested cultural issues that GOP politicians such as DeSantis have capitalized on for support.

“It strikes me that some of the cultural dog whistles don’t motivate them quite the same way,” Gould said.

At the same time, Democrats could use the same cultural issues to “scare some of the independents and modestly attached Republicans to either split their tickets or perhaps get them to just not vote at all in that race,” Gould added.

Although Baca, who lives in Kim’s congressional district, said he’s not sure whom he plans to vote for this November, he hopes the candidates will stick to kitchen-table issues rather than fighting over topics such as whether transgender individuals should be allowed to serve in the military.

“It doesn’t need to be a fight. We don’t need to do the bashing,” he said. “If we had people in Congress that would just not be so belligerent and not be so narrow minded ... we’d have a lot more success.”

Data outlined in the UCI poll indicated that appealing to Asian and Latino voters, particularly those without a strong party preference, could play a crucial role in a candidate’s success in the general election. The poll found that Asian and Latino residents make up the majority of independent voters and those who are loosely attached to a political party.

Republicans in Orange County for years have focused on recruiting Asian American candidates for local races and have put significant resources into attracting Asian American and Pacific Islander voters to win seats. Over the summer, the Republican Party opened a new community center in Little Saigon, home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities outside Vietnam, to aid in recruitment and training volunteers for voter outreach.

But they haven’t had the same success with Latinos. Randall Avila, the executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County, said this will be the focus heading into November.

“We are going to try to kind of replicate what we have been successful with Asian Americans and extend that into the Latino community,” he said.

California state Sen. Dave Min (D-Irvine), who is running in the hotly contested 47th Congressional District currently represented by Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, said the Democratic Party “as an institution is kind of behind the eight ball” in connecting with Asian American voters.

“I think a lot of times Asian American and Latino groups feel like they’re left out in the cold out here,” Min said.