By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist
It is remarkable — even amazing — that as Democrat Joe Biden rang up a nearly 2-to-1 victory over Republican President Donald Trump in California this year, Trump’s party regained four of the seven congressional seats it lost two years ago.
California’s outcome was a big share of the Democrats’ nationwide loss of congressional seats that reduced them to a bare majority.
The GOP comeback was solidified this week when the last few votes were counted in the 25th Congressional District, one of the state’s most contentious political arenas in suburban Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
In 2018, Democrat Katie Hill ousted Republican Congressman Steve Knight in the 25th district, one of seven GOP-held seats to flip that year in a wave of anti-Trump voting. But Hill became enmeshed in a scandal over her personal conduct and resigned.
Republican Mike Garcia, a former Navy pilot, recaptured the seat for the GOP in a special election, defeating Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith, and the two squared off again this year. This week, in the final count, Garcia eked out a paper-thin victory, just a few hundred votes.
Two of the GOP’s congressional comeback wins came in Orange County, where Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel defeated one-term Democrats Gil Cisneros and Harley Rouda.
Historically, the county has been solid Republican territory but Democrats have been making inroads lately. Democrat Hillary Clinton won it in 2016, the first Democrat to do so in 80 years, and Biden won it this year.
The fourth Republican comeback was in the San Joaquin Valley’s 21st Congressional District, where former Congressman David Valadao narrowly defeated Democrat TJ Cox, who had ousted Valadao two years earlier.
Of course, what happened this year merely sets the stage for 2022’s election, when Trump will be gone and outcomes will be even less predictable.
For one thing, we don’t even know how many seats California will have after the 2020 census is complete.
Demographers believe it’s likely that California’s slow population growth could reduce its allotment, now 53 seats, by one or two. However, it could lose even more if the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case that was argued just this week, supports Trump’s position that undocumented immigrants should be excluded from congressional seat calculations.
California is home to as many as three million undocumented immigrants and traditionally the decennial census has included them, along with citizens and legal immigrants, in the complete count used to determine the number of each state’s congressional seats.
Were undocumented residents excluded, it would translate into roughly three fewer seats for California, on top of the one or two seats the state might lose due to its overall slow population growth.
That’s why California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has joined the Supreme Court battle over Trump’s directive.
“For hundreds of years, the U.S. Constitution has been clear: everyone counts,” Becerra said in a statement. “Here in California, we know that fundamental value extends beyond the census. No matter the color of your skin or where you come from, you count.”
However many seats California winds up having, their districts will be redrawn by a 14-member independent commission with five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents, and its first foray into redistricting a decade ago proved that its actions are not predictable.
We may not know how many congressional seats California will have in 2022, and we don’t know the shape of those districts. However, we do know that California will, as it did in 2018 and this year, play a significant role in determining which party controls Congress.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.