Proposed California maps put incumbents in jeopardy

California’s independent redistricting commission has proposed a framework for new district boundary lines that would put at least 10 sitting members of Congress — both Democrats and Republicans — at substantial risk of losing their seats in the coming years, setting the Golden State on the path to a decade of competitive elections.

The boundary lines as drawn are likely to change, in some cases substantially, in the coming weeks as commissioners race to meet a December deadline to produce final maps. But the early draft establishes the contours of what is likely to be a musical chairs-style scramble among members of Congress eager to save their seats after reapportionment shrunk the state’s delegation for the first time since it joined the union.

The first drafts released last week show the results of a decade of relatively tepid population growth in the nation’s most-populous state, especially in Los Angeles County, which grew at a slower rate than the rest of California. The draft map effectively eliminates one of the county’s 14 U.S. House districts.

The victim would likely be Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D), a 30-year veteran of Congress who represents East Los Angeles and the cities of Commerce, Paramount and Huntington Park. Her constituents, a higher share of whom are Latino than any other district in the United States, would be carved up between districts held by Reps. Alan Lowenthal (D), Jimmy Gomez (D) and Nanette Diaz Barragán (D).

“I am aware of the current draft map and I have concerns about the protections of voting rights districts and in particular the diluting of the vote in our Latino communities,” Roybal-Allard said in a statement. “I look forward to the commission appropriately addressing these issues before final maps are approved.”

Population shifts in Northern California also spell trouble for Rep. Josh Harder (D), a second-term Democrat who unseated a Republican in the 2018 midterm elections. Harder’s Central Valley district is carved up between seats held by Reps. Jerry McNerney (D) and Jim Costa (D) and another district that favors Republicans stretching inland to the Nevada border. 

Harder, whose home would be drawn into Costa’s district under the new maps, had no comment on the proposed maps, a spokesman said. 

Beyond the incumbents whose districts have disappeared, several other sitting members will find themselves running in seats that are dramatically different from the ones they hold now. 

Under the new lines, Rep. Devin Nunes’s (R) district in the San Joaquin Valley would take on a distinctly Democratic edge. Rep. Michelle Steel (R), serving her first term in Congress, would gain new Democratic voters in Orange County. Seats held by Reps. Mike Garcia (R), Katie Porter (D), Mike Levin (D) and Darrell Issa (R) also gain thousands of voters who generally favor the other party. 

The increasing number of competitive districts is a departure from district lines proposed or approved by panels and legislatures in other states, many of whom have drawn maps that reduce the number of swing districts. In many cases, those seats have been carved up into safer territory for one party or the other.

“California was going to be ground zero anyway with a lot of close fights, and a lot of these districts are going to be even more competitive,” said Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California, San Diego. “Yet again, this really noncompetitive state in a presidential year looks like ground zero for competitive House elections.” 

The California Citizens Redistricting Commission did not release political data tied to the new maps, so exact calculations are impossible until more formal versions are released. But they did release demographic data, which shows that whites would make up a majority of the voting age population in 24 of California’s 52 new districts. Hispanics would be a majority of the voting age population in 13 districts.

Some demographic experts and Hispanic activists say the new maps shortchange the fastest-growing populations in a state where the white population declined over the last decade. 

“Latinos grew everywhere. Asians grew in the most Asian communities. And the Black population grew, but it dispersed a lot through different communities. The white population dropped by 5 percent. And the remedy of white population dropping can’t be the elimination of a Latino seat. That’s just ridiculous,” said Paul Mitchell, a redistricting expert and vice present of Political Data Inc., a California-based firm.

In a statement Friday, the chief executive of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund — a group founded by Roybal-Allard’s father, the late Rep. Edward Roybal (D) — objected to the proposed lines. 

“These draft maps do not appear to fully take into account the growth of the Latino population and electorate,” Arturo Vargas said in the statement. “Ultimately, we urge the Commission to ensure that any final maps fully comply with the [Voting Rights Act] and do not limit the ability of Latino voters to have fair representation.” 

The commission, Mitchell said, is likely to take a hard look at district lines in several regions before it finalizes map lines. More than 16,000 comments have been submitted to the commission so far, including about 3,000 in the days since the commission released draft maps. 

That pace is likely to easily eclipse the 20,000 total comments received during the entirety of the 2010-2011 redistricting process.

If the commission reexamines its boundary lines, they may find an opportunity to reestablish Roybal-Allard’s seat by carving up a neighboring district, one currently held by Rep. Karen Bass (D). Bass has opted to run for mayor of Los Angeles, rather than for another term in Congress.

“They have to figure out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together a little bit” in Roybal-Allard’s district, Mitchell said.

Tags Alan Lowenthal California Darrell Issa Devin Nunes Jerry McNerney Jim Costa Jimmy Gomez Karen Bass Lucille Roybal-Allard Mike Levin Paul Mitchell Redistricting

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