"My answer is we need to rethink local control," he said. "Jim wants to destroy rather than reform, and I'm arguing that you need to reform."

What's pushed the Costa Mesa battles to a new level of vitriol is a mixture of the city having been "ground zero for Orange County Republicans since forever," Smoller said, and the introduction of "personalities," like Righeimer, whom he called O.C.'s version of the virulently anti-union Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

"I think the circumstances of his coming to office are the function of real budget shortfalls … [but Righeimer] just doesn't believe unions have a right to exist," he said. "Does the man produce the times, or do the times produce the man?"

OCGOP Chairman Scott Baugh, who strongly supports Righeimer's mission, might argue the latter. The fiscal stakes, he said, have forced local governments' hands.

National attention, he said, has "upped the ante and the intensity" of Costa Mesa's campaigns, but the city isn't the exclusive battleground.

The fact that Measure V is on Costa Mesa's ballot does, however, position the city at a particular turning point, more so than other cities that have already adopted charters.

"The heart of the matter is it's easier to do these reforms when you're a charter city," Baugh said. "And the issue for a charter city is: Do the people of Costa Mesa want to have their own sovereignty of their own constitution?"

Mensinger, writing in an email, emphasized Measure V's urgency.

"We don't have an option to go back to the days of fiscal irresponsibility that have mortgaged our children's future," he wrote.

The tone of the campaigns was set when public employee unions "declared war on Jim Righeimer before he was elected," Baugh said. "I guess Mr. Righeimer could've rolled over and played nice and gotten nothing done."


Republican registration

Though there is much tension between unions and Righeimer's council majority, Costa Mesa remains a GOP stronghold. Of the city's nearly 60,000 registered voters, about 23,000 are Republicans, 18,000 are Democrats and 15,000 have no stated party preference, according to recent data from the Orange County Registrar of Voters. The remainder are a mix of the American Independent, Green, Libertarian, Peace and Freedom, and other parties.

In fact, many of the council's critics, such as Genis, are Republicans who say this particular fight does not fall along those tried-and-true divisions: Democrats and labor vs. Republicans and business.

What does seem clear among the sizable Republican majority, according to Leffler, a Republican, is little regard to GOP icon Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

"It's all about outsiders saying they want to turn Costa Mesa into an experiment," Leffler said. "And so they have, and we are the ones who are suffering. We didn't ask to be ground zero."

She added that other cities are dealing with similar issues such as pension reform, but "they're going about it calmly."

She and others said the OCGOP doesn't necessarily represent their brand of the Republican way.

Council candidate Melone, a fellow Republican who's largely stayed out of the fray by not actively campaigning or accepting many contributions, agreed with Leffler.

"Now what we got is some nasty stuff going on, more so than normal," he said.