Superficially, California’s politics seem poised for a big upheaval in this election year, but appearances can be deceiving.
The illusion of major change comes from the redrawing of 172 congressional and legislative districts by the state’s independent redistricting commission to reflect population shifts revealed by the 2020 census.
The boundary changes, driven by the 14-member commission’s obsession with “communities of interest” that it defined in purely subjective, ever-shifting terms, will generate a substantial turnover in the 52-member congressional delegation, the 40-member state Senate and the 80-seat state Assembly.
Much of it will be a game of musical chairs as politicians shift from one venue to another. Several senior members of the congressional delegation are calling it quits, opening up opportunities for state legislators to advance their careers. The redistricting plans also throw a few incumbents into the same districts, forcing them to alter career plans.
The 2011 California redistricting and the 2012 elections brought a bumper crop of new legislators into the Capitol who will face automatic retirement in 2024 due to the 12-year limit on legislative service, so several of them are planning bids for Congress or statewide office this year.
The commission was attempting to comply with a set of conflicting mandates, not only to equalize the populations of legislative and congressional districts, but to meet the demands of ethnic and cultural “communities of interest” for dedicated legislative seats and to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act indirectly mandates creating more districts likely to elect non-white members, thus increasingly the likelihood that more of those winning legislative seats in this year’s elections will be Latino, Asian or Black.
The communities whose demands were met are overwhelmingly Democratic and even if the commission had ignored the Voting Rights Act and the “communities of interest” credo, its maps would favor Democrats because fewer than 25% of registered voters are Republicans and Democrats outnumber them almost 2-to-1.
If one defines “gerrymandering” as pre-ordaining who wins a legislative or congressional seat by drawing district lines, this was gerrymandering, albeit not for overtly partisan purposes. That said, the partisan effect will be to cement the Democratic Party’s overwhelming control of the Legislature and the congressional delegation.
The current Legislature is roughly 75% Democratic and there’s little doubt that the one elected in November will be equally lopsided in partisan makeup. The faces may change but not the Legislature’s left-of-center tilt.
The only real mystery emanating from the new maps is whether Democrats will increase their hold on the congressional delegation. In 2018, the state’s disdain for Donald Trump manifested itself in a debacle for Republican members of Congress, cutting their ranks from a paltry 14 seats to just seven. The GOP rebounded a bit in 2020 and now holds 11 seats.
The state is losing a congressional seat due to slow population growth in the last decade, thus requiring an adjustment that wound up costing Los Angeles County one of its seats. Nevertheless, the overall thrust of the new congressional map favors Democrats and whether the party makes gains in California could play a role in which party controls the House.
Republicans need to gain just five seats to regain control and the increase in seats in fast-growing pro-GOP states such as Texas, plus Republican-friendly gerrymanders in those states and the nation’s overall political sentiment favor a shift of power.
However, if it’s closer than expected, Democratic gains in California could make the difference and a handful of tossup contests in the state’s newly reconfigured districts will draw heavy attention.
Dan Walters is a columnist for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.