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Why California Democrats May Have Overplayed Their Hand In Redistricting

California congressional maps
Currently, California has 42 Democratic seats and 11 Republican. However, California’s population growth trailed that of other states, and will now be losing one seat. File photo: Lets Design Studio, Shutter Stock, licensed.

LOS ANGELES, CA – California’s independent citizen redistricting commission just unanimously approved the state’s new congressional map three days ago, on December 20th. The maps will be certified by December 27. Surprisingly, it doesn’t alter the balance of power as dramatically as it could have done. This was not entirely shocking as I got heavily involved with my local Orange County redistricting, and saw groups on the left and right, especially those advocating for Asians and Latinos, like mine, that were not entirely concerned about partisan advantages and more about clustering communities of color for a unified voice..

Currently, California has 42 Democratic seats and 11 Republican. However, California’s population growth trailed that of other states, and will now be losing one seat. That seat is one in Long Beach where Democratic incumbents Lowenthal and Royball-Allard were drawn into the same district. Both are retiring so it will now be a likely Democratic open seat.

On paper, things look good for Democrats. Holding all the political power in California, the redistricting commission nonetheless is named Independent, but Democratic interests prevail, as it did 10 years ago when a longstanding 34-19 Democrat-Republican split in Congress during the 2000’s was broken up and Democrats made consistent gains over the 2010’s, eventually getting as many as 46 seats in 2018. 

This is highlighted in Eric Cunningham’s tweet thread, where he states “California’s new congressional maps receive a failing grade in DRA. Irregular, flailing lines, rampant county splits (Fresno is split four times!), and geographically nonsensical seats – all the hallmarks of a partisan gerrymander.” Rob Pyers, research director of the nonpartisan California Target Book, states, “The maps essentially lock in Democratic supermajorities for the next 10 years.”

According to fairness metrics, this new map is moderately biased towards Democrats. However, I caution the short-sightedness, as Democrats in their desire to gain more seats, have created more vulnerabilities than they may have imagined. The main one is the assumption that minorities will stay in the Democratic camp when recent data has shown quite the opposite.

CNN has a great recap of race by race dynamics, with some like Devin Nunes forced into retirement, as his district went from an R+11 advantage to a D+16, while seats barely won by Republicans last round such as Mike Garcia’s and David Valadao’s, where they won by around 1%, are now shored up so Democrats can win them easier this time. But with their own incumbents like Katie Porter losing most of their district, it shows that the Democrats for partisan gerrymandering are bullish in their risk taking, hoping to expand their 42 member delegation.

One-third of the new districts are now majority-Hispanic, an increase of about three districts, which tracks with California’s natural population growth and demographic shift towards Latinos. It will continue the trend of increasing Latino representation and hence, more power for Latino voters.

The question on everyone’s mind is what will the CA House delegation be after the 2022 elections? 

While Democrats could certainly pick up seats and some outlets are reporting that this has been a win for Democrats, there are Democrats who are crying foul over the redistricting as well, which cost $20.3 million. Steven Maglivio, a Democratic Sacramento consultant says, “Everyone understands that redistricting is an ugly process no matter who does it, but what I’m seeing here is amateur sausage-making”. It’s almost like they made these calculations in a vacuum and are counting on red districts getting bluer, which certainly was the trend until 2018, but without taking other factors into consideration. 

2020 was surprisingly a receding of waters and Republicans gained four seats, while conservatives swept the ballot initiatives. In addition, a pesky dynamic of minority voters going Republican or supporting President Trump makes prognostications iffy at best.

Much of this did not only show up in the 2020 election but in its aftermath. The biggest surprises nationally were in heavily Hispanic Miami/Dade County which went from 30 points for Hillary in 2016 to only 7 points for Biden in 2020, bringing home Florida to the Republican column. The other was in West and South Texas, a heavily Hispanic and traditional Democratic stronghold which elected a Republican Congressman and Trump almost winning the region and arguably keeping Texas red. Recently, State Rep. Ryan Guillen switched from Democrat to Republican “After much consideration and prayer with my family, I feel that my fiscally conservative, pro-business, and pro-life values are no longer in step with the Democratic Party of today.”

In Southern California, the Vietnamese community rallied to Republicans. Fountain Valley, a city that went 15 points for Hillary in 2016, went 10 points for Trump four years later and ushered in my friend, Ted Bui, who ran as a conservative. Westminster, the heart of Little Saigon, also saw a similar double digit shift. Today, Biden’s approval among Hispanics has plummeted from 59 percent in July to 33 percent in December, per Marist.

With President Biden’s approval rating plummeting, it is likely that an overall blanket effect may even save Rep. Steel (R-CA), who’s district went from a Republican advantage to D+6.  Her colleague Young Kim (R-CA) actually won in a D+6 district last round, so there is plenty of evidence that despite voting against the top of the ticket, Asian American voters would split their ticket and vote for a Republican representative even in a Democratic district.

Bottom line: in a Democrat wave year, this map would be a great guarantee for Democrats to pick up seats and get back to that 45 or 46 high water mark they achieved in 2018. However, in a Republican wave year, Democrats could actually lose seats and possibly even get under 40. The likeliest scenario will be a 40D-12R split with a net gain of one Republican and a net loss of two Democrats.

The calculations seem to once again, take for granted minority voting behavior, arrogantly assuming they will stick with the Democrats. Valadao, a Republican, won in a D+9 district and arrogant Democratic prognosticators like Wasserman are overly confident that “it got bluer”. In the end, it’s a one point shift that could easily be threatened by Biden’s low standing and Hispanics moving towards the GOP, especially rural ones. This also applies to Rep. Mike Garcia’s Los Angeles exurb-suburban seat.

In a Republican wave year, four more Democratic seats are now in play. Katie Porter’s district (D+6 to R+4) is the obvious one that has been wiped out. But Mike Levin’s D+6 district is now in play. This leaves Porter with an option to run in Levin’s, or Correa’s district, or try to challenge either Young Kim or Michelle Steel.

Besides those two Orange County districts, two other Democratic incumbents are now “in play” in a Republican wave year. This includes Jerry McNerney’s (D+14 to D+8) and Jim Costa’s (D+17 to D+7) in the Central Valley. Costa may just run in Nunes’ district in the Democratic portion of Fresno, which would give the GOP another opportunity in an open seat. Or he may just retire altogether, as he turns 70 years old.

It seems that the gerrymandering on paper gives the Democrats an advantage and those with shallow analysis into the demographics and numbers will cheer, assuming old trends hold. But the reality is many more seats are now open to flipping to Republican in a national environment that is not 2016 or 2018, or even 2020.

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